Songbird flies home
Mary Nomura, the ‘Songbird of Manzanar,’ returns to the stage for the 14th annual Peace Through Music benefit
By Carl Kozlowski 10/25/2012
Mary Nomura was just 16 when she became one of more than 70,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry to be forcibly removed from her Venice home and indefinitely detained in American-style concentration camps following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
She spent nearly three years in the camp at Manzanar, surrounded by machine guns and guard towers, but she refused to let the experience crush her spirit.
Instead of breaking down in frustration, she applied her natural singing talents to entertain her fellow detainees whenever the opportunity arose and came to be known as the “Songbird of Manzanar.”
On Saturday, Nov. 10, she will use her lovely voice again — a full 70 years after her imprisonment — in the 14th annual “Peace Through Music” show, benefiting the work of the Pasadena Human Relations Commission (HRC) and the Kerio Senior HealthCare retirement home for Japanese Americans.
“We were treated humanely, and the barbed wire fence and machine guns set up all around us both kept Japanese Americans inside the camps, but also protected us from any outsiders who wanted to harm us,” recalls Nomura, who started singing at 5 years old and sang everywhere from open-air lots to dining halls and the official auditorium at Manzanar.
“We had to make our own life as pleasant and normal as possible behind barbed wires,” she said. “We were fortunate we had a camp director we all admired, who was very fair to us. The Japanese way of saying it is we made do.”
While Nomura married shortly after leaving the camp in January 1945 and settled into a happy domestic life, she returned to the stage in 2004 as part of “The Camp Dance Show” by Soji Kashiwagi, a musical about the internment camp experience. After performing in it everywhere from the state of Washington down to San Diego, and stretching into Colorado and Arizona, she has fully come to terms with that era of her life.
While she lives in Huntington Beach now, she heard about the “Peace Through Music” show when Kashiwagi recommended that the concert’s organizer, Nat Nehdar, hear her sing. She was immediately invited to perform, and will join an eclectic talent lineup that includes concert pianists Carl Matthes and Yin Yin Huang, as well as moonlight serenaders known as the Grateful Crane Ensemble.
Other artists include marimba player Noriko Hirao, cellist Ling Yan, violinist Min Jung Park, baritone Cedric Barry, violinist Yuki Mori, vocalist Alisonne, ballerina Victoria Gu and pianist Serena Wang.
Together, they will raise funds for the Pasadena HRC, which seeks to reduce prejudice, violence and hate crimes in Pasadena and surrounding cities by promoting cultural diversity.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, and again Nov. 6-7, popular Pasadena eatery Robin’s Woodfire Barbeque & Grill will donate 25 percent of all its food and beverage sales to the HRC as well.
The 14th annual “Peace Through Music” concert is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10 at the First Church of the Nazarene, 3700 E. Sierra Madre Blvd., Pasadena. Tickets are $20 for general admission, and free for Japanese-American internment survivors. Call (626) 840-8131 for advance tickets, or buy tickets at the door.
Robin’s Woodfire Barbecue & Grill Barbeque Restaurant is located at 395 N. Rosemead Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 351-8885 or visit robinsbbq.com.