Creating music only the start for Tukuafu
“The body is a musical instrument. When you sing, the way you stand straight, how you form your mouth lets you make a beautiful, rich sound,” said Irene Tukuafu, in her Nauvoo home, surrounded by musical instruments.
Irene, 68, believes her body and mind are instruments that must be used for the good of others. Music is a big part of Irene's life, whether singing, playing her many handmade instruments or making more instruments for others to enjoy. In the living room are a harp, dulcimer and hammer dulcimer, psaltery and a string base, all made by Irene.
She started using kits for the basic form of the instruments but adds her own touches and skills to make them unique.
“For many reasons, I do not say blatantly, ‘I make my instruments from kits.' Most folks when they make bread, do not grow the wheat, grind it and then make the bread. They buy the flour and make the bread,” Irene said. “I can say that for making my instruments. Why re-invent the wheel?”
Jerry Brown, the owner of Music Maker Kits, says Irene has made more harps from his kits then any other single customer - 43 so far.
“When one makes a kit, one must do many things to make that instrument look and feel and sound professional. I have the big pieces cut elsewhere as I want to save my hands for playing these instruments myself, especially the harp. (Those band saws are somewhat dangerous.)”
Some instruments she makes are for herself and family, some are gifts, and many are sold.
As she strums “Be Thou My Vision” on the harp she tells her own dream, her vision of putting harps into the hands of blind people.
“When you play a stringed instrument you feel it here,” she said as she taps her chest. “It is very soothing, healing.
“In Scotland in the 12th century, blind people were given a harp and if they became good enough, they got a cart, a horse and a driver. They were the local bards, singing the stories and the news of the area. I want to find a way to get grants to make harps to give to blind people.”
Beyond soothing for the harpist, she believes these blind musicians would have an important role in the healing of others, through harp therapy.
The story of how she began making instruments and what she still wants to do starts with her marriage to Tomasi Tukuafu in Hawaii in 1964. Tomasi is from Tonga, the last remaining Polynesian kingdom.
Early in their marriage, they moved from Hawaii to Canada, and as Christmas approached they were admonished by their bishop to do something for family and friends as a gift, rather than buying something. She asked her husband what the Tongans do for Christmas.
“He said they go sing to shut-ins. So that is what we would do. We took the children and went singing. It started simple, with a rattle or a tambourine that the children could use. My husband played harmonica and guitar.
“We have been married for 45 years, and I have never met a Tongan that can't sing,” she said.
They moved back to Hawaii (Canada was just too cold.), and the family grew with 14 children, and now 48 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. Tomasi taught high school math and science for 45 years.
“For two years, we lived in a grass shack my husband built. At the time we had five kids under six years old. But why do you need a house in the beautiful land of Hawaii.
“My husband is so considerate and loving. At one point, when we had 12 children, he knew I needed a break. He urged me to go to the University of Hawaii to take some music classes,” she said. She baked bread, sold it at a local health food store, and that paid for the gas and fees to take the classes. Her first class was in early music.
At one class, a woman brought a harp, and Irene fell in love with the sound. She bought a harp for her husband for Christmas. The class pulled her into a love for early stringed instruments and introduced her to national harp conventions.
The hammered dulcimer, she learned, is a precurser for the piano. The bowed psaltery is an instrment with “true sound” with unfretted strings that dates back more than 2000 years.
At conventions she saw harps of all kinds and sounds, and learned everything from how to improvise on a harp to contracts for playing at a wedding.
Her first harp kit involved a little barter to reduce the price.
“I saw a harp this size at a harp convention. It sold for $6,000. When the seller learned I was from Hawaii he said, ‘I am an Eagle Scout, I've wanted to take my family camping in Hawaii. Can we come and camp on your property?' It was a deal.”
She used the wood working shop at the school where her husband taught to assemble that first harp kit. Since then she has made many more harps, often letting the new owner become involved.
“I've done what that man did for me. He showed me how to use the tools, how to make the box, how to set the strings, and let me do it. When you make a harp box, that harp is yours.” Irene has created a blog about the people who have her harps.
Irene has taken a course in International Harp Therapy taught by Christina Tourin. The modular course took her to several locations, including San Diego where she first saw the harp used in hospice care.
“Music is so soothing, so healing. One woman said, ‘Don't come in. I don't want anyone to see me like this.' Can you imagine how it would help her to have a blind harpist to come share music with that patient?” Irene said, emotional at the thought. She is a certified harp therapy practicioner.
When they moved to Nauvoo from Oregon in October 2006, they rented a house with a large basement that could accommodate her growing shop of woodworking tools, where she makes furniture, nativity sets, gifts and much more, besides musical instruments.
Coming to Nauvoo started her next major project, building a round house in the Yurt fashion from the Mongolian age and time.
“An original Yurt house would have a hole in the ceiling to allow smoke from the center fire to escape, not unlike a teepee. I will have a fireplace, but there is a skylight in the top,” Irene said. Again, she started with a kit for the roof, and is working with a builder to fashion the “circular” structure with 27 sides, each four foot wide.
“The front part is made from these wonderful antique logs from Pennsylvania,” Irene said. “I got information from Dave Hardle (of Nauvoo Log Cabins) that someone had built a log cabin and had these left over. Huge logs 15 to 23 inches tall and flatted on the sides to be eight inches deep, all cut into four-foot lengths.”
The front half the home is made of these antique logs, with an added room attached at the back. She and Tomasi hope to move in by the end of February.
“I picture holding small harp conventions there, music parties where people bring their instruments and play,” she said.
Irene and Tomasi are adamant about staying active and learning new things. Tomasi plays Scrabble with two young teen-aged boys, and teaches violin.
“He was a teacher all those years. He has such a way with the young people.
“We play Scrabble every day. Keep a journal. Write to your descendants and to the ones you have not yet met,” Irene said.
“They say the problem with Alzheimer's is that the brain stops making those connectors. You need to learn new things each day. Keep the mind active. Learn to play an instrument. I've sold at least five harps to people from age 50 to 63. Music keeps you alive.
“I want to make harps until I jump into my pine box...which I will make myself. It may be an odd looking bookshelf in the garage, but when the time comes, it will be there.”