Wednesday | December 13, 2017
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Concert to honor ‘Unca Clarence’


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Clarence Keahialoa Waipa taught music, art, theater and Hawaiian history for more than three decades, inspiring his students and creating a legacy that will be perpetuated for generations.

That legacy will be celebrated in a special memorial scholarship concert on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the University of Hawaii Performing Arts Center, two years after the death of the man affectionately known as “Unca Clarence.” Tickets are $12 general, $10 senior, and $10 UHH/HCC students, alumni, faculty and staff, and ages 17 and under.

Performing will be the elite UHH Kapili Choir, the University Chorus, the Kamehameha High School and Alumni choirs and singers from St. Joseph High School, Seventh-day Adventist Church and Sing Out Hilo, as well as the Waipa Concert Orchestra with concertmaster Michael Russell. Conductors will be Amy Horst and Herb Mahelona. Kaweo Kanoho is the tenor soloist and accompanists are Michael Springer and Kayleen Yuda.

The concert will feature music Waipa arranged and/or performed with numerous choral organizations during his extraordinary life, arranged by Mahelona, music director at Kamehameha High School and Springer, a protégé of Waipa’s. The bill will include classical music, Hawaiian standards and tunes that were standard fare for Waipa’s singers.

Jackie Pualani Johnson, a UHH drama professor who chairs the Performing Arts Department, said Waipa entered her life when she was a freshman at St. Joseph.

“I had been singing at my Grandpa Medeiros’ knee for years, but it was Unca Clarence who showed up at St. Joseph High to teach music and appeared at the Sing Out Hilo gathering to be music director,” she recalled. “I remember him at the piano, calling me over, then saying, ‘Try this. Now this.’ It went on for quite a while, his fingers on the ivories, and me trying to match pitches and learn the tunes quickly. This cinched my love of music and marked the beginning of my performance training. Unca’s vast repertoire made me realize the worlds of possibility beyond our island’s shores.”

The Keaukaha-bred Waipa graduated from Hilo High School and received his music degree from California State University at Los Angeles. He played music professionally in Southern California for 12 years, including television and movies such as “Diamond Head” and “Bird of Paradise,” before returning home to teach at St. Joseph in 1967.

“Many do not know about Unca’s early years in music, and that’s fascinating because they were a prelude to his work in Hilo,” Johnson said. “He and Ken Loeffler, who still sings in the Kamehameha Alumni Choir today, along with Joe Aki and Ernie Reyer, were the group called The Menehunes in Los Angeles. They did all the Hawaiian standards, and Unca cut his teeth on the music that we consider charming today, fine examples of when the rest of the world began to take notice of Hawaiian music. Unca lived the L.A. life, appearing in movies and singing in countless venues.”

Nominated by Paul Tallett and Dirk Smith, the leaders of Sing Out Hilo, Waipa was honored by the Hilo Jaycees as the Outstanding Young Educator of 1969. Testimonials by SJS students highlighted the respect they had for him. Students wrote in his nomination that Waipa was “bubbling with enthusiasm,” “ready to listen,” “patient” and “has time for everyone.”

Many of Waipa’s students forged lifelong connections with him, and Springer delivered his eulogy in January 2011.

“He was compassionate, kind, concerned, courteous, appreciative, and above all, a gentle individual,” Springer said in memory of his mentor. “… What is remarkable about his journey on this continuum is that he touched and helped shape so many of our lives, and created or shared so many events that his life can now be measured in our own personal timelines.”

Johnson and Springer both alluded to Waipa’s humor, and Springer said that Waipa “had a story for just about every occasion.”

“He enjoyed good banter, but never, ever a wisecrack or jibe at the expense of another,” he said.

Johnson said that Waipa fostered a family atmosphere in his classes and organizations.

“St. Joseph and Sing Out were models of how groups functioned as ‘ohana, long before the concept was ever labeled,” she said. “We spent hours together and our families were included as part of the effort. The Sing Out leaders became surrogate parents to us and all was wonderfully egalitarian. It didn’t matter if we were rich or poor or where we fell on the color spectrum. Our job was to get along and be examples to the world that Hawaii was special because of tolerance and talent.”

Waipa also served as choir director for First United Protestant Church, the Kamehameha Schools Alumni Association Choir and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The concert is dedicated to Waipa’s wife, Becky Jane, their six children and the Waipa ‘ohana. Proceeds will help fund performing arts scholarships at UHH. Donations to the scholarship fund can be made to the UH Foundation, Performing Arts Center Scholarship Fund. For more information, contact Johnson at

Email John Burnett at


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