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Susan Kang Sunderland

John Berger: Journalist! Columnist! Author!

Hawaii’s pre-eminent entertainment/nightlife writer over the past 40 years, John Berger – a.k.a. the Man In Black – breaks new ground as co-author (with the late George Kanahele) of Hawaiian Music and Musicians, doubling the page count from the original version

John Berger has made it. While Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show sang in the 1970s rock hit about wanting to be on the cover of Rolling Stone, Berger’s claim to fame is being on the cover of MidWeek.

But leave it to us to shake things up a bit. Only our publication would dare to take Honolulu Star-Advertiser music and theatre critic Berger totally out of his comfort zone.

The man about town known for his signature all-black wardrobe – move over, Dog Chapman – is dressed in all-white for his cover shot.

As Berger puts it, “People will think hell has frozen over.”

The devil made us do it.

But if we want to review the town reviewer, shouldn’t we strip away his usual stoic image? It’s John Berger unplugged.

It’s not so much for provocation as it is to spotlight someone who usually puts others in the limelight.

True to Berger’s journalistic standards, we wouldn’t do this without a legitimate news angle.

The good news is that hard-working newspaper reporter Berger is now also a published author.

He recently culminated an intensive 12-year research, writing and editing project that resulted in the authoritative book Hawaiian Music and Musicians. The 62-year-old Mililani resident is co-editor of the volume that was first compiled and published in 1979 by George S. Kanahele.

Hand-picked by Kanahele to be his partner, he made Berger promise to complete the arduous task of revising and updating the book “no matter what.” Berger kept his promise, continuing even when Kanahele met his untimely death from a heart attack a few months later.

“It is my hope that the book will engage people in the rich history of Hawaii’s music,” Berger says. “Many people have shared their knowledge with me during my career and this is a way that I am repaying their kindness.”

The 970-page second edition – double the original book length – draws upon Berger’s accumulated knowledge of Hawaiian music composers and performers from 40 years of entertainment reporting. It also includes the contributions of more than 200 “knowledgeable and competent specialists.”

Almost every aspect of island music is covered, including composers, performers and musical personalities; instruments; songs and compositions; and the internationalization of the genre.

The book is well-researched with an amazing amount of depth that’s organized in an encyclopedic format. Eighty-seven new entries have been added, along with a 64-page photo insert.

From “Adios Ke Aloha” to Yamauchi Yuukui, it is a fascinating journey of more facts and figures about Hawaiian music than you might retain in a lifetime.

That is, unless you have the amazing ability of recall and retention with which Berger is blessed. Added to his natural abilities is an intense focus and concentration on any project he undertakes.

Kanahele saw this drive in Berger. As the Hawaiian historian, scholar and author readily admitted, “One can never imagine all the problems, frustrations, triumphs and surprises in a task of this kind. In fact, had we had perfect foresight, we might have hesitated undertaking the project in the first place.”

One of the book contributors, Puakea Nogelmeier, respected Hawaiian culture expert and linguist, hails Berger’s commitment as “a labor of love.”

“He invested himself for years in the time-consuming and meticulous work of assembling a whole new body of data about Hawaiian music and musicians. We are all the beneficiaries of John’s years of work, and the book stands as an incomparable reference for everyone interested in Hawaiian music, history and culture.”

What might be remarkable to some is that Berger, a Michigan native who moved to Hawaii with his parents in 1965, is not Hawaiian. Nor, incidentally, is he related to the legendary Royal Hawaiian bandmaster Capt. Henri Wilhelm Berger. (You can read about him in the book.)

“My race, ethnicity or place of birth was never an issue,” Berger says of his participation in Kanahele’s project.

That’s as it should be. Hawaii’s inclusive culture thrives on diversity and the well-meaning contributions of those who celebrate what’s unique about our islands.

Thanks to the dedication of Berger and others like him, Hawaiian music will continue to find its way into the hearts of audiences throughout the world. The book’s extensive coverage of the internationalization of Hawaiian music, one of the few well-documented sources on this topic, is a tribute to the state’s most successful and far-reaching export.

Now let’s get back to the man behind all that writing, whose own story deserves a curtain call. Besides, he can’t hide behind that white monkey suit forever.

Someone who appears in the Sunday paper with his On the Scene social pics and Island Mele column of recording reviews, plus weekly jaunts to the town’s biggest concerts, nightclub acts, glamorous parties and stage performances must lead a charmed life.

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