March 22, 2012

While my ukulele warmly laughs: Marine brings sounds of Pacific to Yuma

Lance Cpl. Sean Dennison
Photos by Lance Cpl. Sean Dennison
Lance Cpl. Eric Olopai, a Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron correctional officer and a native of Hollywood, Fla., plays his ukulele on the station, March 19.

The ukulele originated in Hawaii in the 19th century, based on Portuguese guitar-like instruments. The instrument spread in popularity in the 20th century, and even today austere communities such as Yuma are treated to the sounds of the Pacific.

Lance Cpl. Eric Olopai, a Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron correctional officer and a native of Hollywood, Fla., is the Marine producing the music.

Born in the Pacific Islands, the 24-year-old said much of his musicianship stems from his family.

“My dad’s a musician,” Olopai said. “Growing up I had a lot of cousins, aunts, uncles and we’d go to parties and just jam out. From Grandma’s house to barbeques, there were always family members singing. I always grew up around music.”

The ukulelist first touched the instrument in fifth grade, though it wouldn’t be until later he would focus his energy on playing.

“I wasn’t too serious about it,” Olopai said. “I had some cousins that would play some songs, and I would be like, ‘teach me that song’.”

“I got my biggest inspiration from my dad,” he added. “It was always seeing him stick to his passion and always seeing him do what he loves.”

Olopai dabbled in bass, but enjoyed the resonance of the ukulele more.

“The fact that everyone around me in my life played the ukulele was a factor,” he said.

Humans are associative beings, whatever the medium, as Olopai pointed out.

“Songs in general take you back to that point in time when you learned them,” he said. “I’ve learned songs in Seattle, in Hawaii, in Florida . . . I see it like a time machine for the soul that brings you back to when.”

Olopai went through five elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school. Music was the one thing consistent throughout his travels.

One of his biggest transitions saw him becoming a Marine from a civilian.

“I was doing a lot of nothing, and I wanted to do something,” said Olopai, who’s path toward earning the title Marine set after he met a friend on recruiter’s assistance.

“I ran into an old friend who in high school used to be really, a big partygoer,” said Olopai, who invited her to a party. “She was standing tall, she was mature, she wasn’t her old crazy high school self.”

“She told me she was in the Marine Corps,” he added. “You could see so much change in a person. Everyone took her seriously. Look how much she can change, why can’t I? She partied just as much as I did, if not more so. It was literally an overnight decision. I was going to be a Marine.”

He shipped out in August 2010. Marine Corps boot camp is often a shock to the system, with the recruit deprived of any semblance of normalcy and the amenities of their previous life. Olopai and music, however, did not remain separated for long.

“I was nicknamed Radio, because the only time I got slayed was when I got caught singing,” he said, laughing. “Our theme song for boot camp was ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’, because I’d always start humming it. Then another person would join in. Then another. Then our drill instructor would come in.”

It’s not uncommon for Marines to take up an instrument as a way of breaking up monotony or destressing. For Olopai, being in the Marine Corps strengthens his bond to his instrument.

“I missed my uke (in boot camp),” he said. “I liked playing it, but (I wasn’t) as close to it as I am now. I think this is the one thing that keeps me strong, because it’s the one thing my loved ones play, I’m still keeping to it, even though I’m so far away.”

Olopai sometimes calls his relatives to have them listen to a new song he’s been working on. Or he’ll fill the barracks with the instrument’s exotic sound.

“It’s definitely an icebreaker or a conversation starter,” Olopai said, whose favorite question about his instrument is, “is that a guitar?”

“People come over and start singing with you,” he added. “You start talking about life goals and all that. In a way it connects everyone.”

The stress of being a member of the Armed Forces can be a burden for some, but, as Olopai knows, that burden can be lifted with sounds bringing to mind images of warm breezes on white beaches.

“People ask me why I’m always so chill,” he said, pointing to his uke. “This is my tylenol, my aspirin, my vicodin.”

There are times being a Marine is just a bummer, something any Marine can empathize with. And yet”¦

“I still manage to wake up every day with a smile, because I have Bliss,” said Olopai, bliss being the name of his ukulele, as well as his general state of mind.

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