The sardine-can ukulele: Finding the harmony between past and present

Posted on Sep 22 2020

The Yeh-Yeh series shares rich stories and oral traditions of Saipan. The name is inspired by Refaluwasch elder Lino Olapai’s childhood memory of being told to say “yehyeh” as the elders told stories. Once it was quiet, the elders knew the children were asleep.

Lino Olopai strums his homemade ukulele as he reminisces about hearing Hawaiian music for the first time as a young boy.

Lino Olopai’s eyes shine as he stands on the front porch of his tin-roof bungalow on the western lagoon of Saipan. He holds a silver sardine can, a round hole cut through the center. A wooden rod runs through it.

He strums the imaginary strings and sings, la-lah-la-lah-lahhhh. His beguiling smile greets his memories: the mid-1940s after the war, and as a 5-year-old boy, he had just heard the sound of the ukulele for the first time.
“Out of the blue, we heard this sweet lovely melody,” Olopai said. “And we just ran toward it.”

The music was coming from a group of Hawaiian men who were working to clean up the island after the war. One man stood plucking a makeshift bass made of an oil can, some twigs and nylon. Another man strummed a ukulele.
“The guy was stepping on that old gas can, tapping it and plucking those strings. Boom. Boom. Boom. And, as kids, we just sat right there under their noses and stared up at them.”

It looked and sounded nothing like the traditional Carolinian stick dance Olopai had grown up with in their ceremonies.

He soon made his own ukulele, finding an old sardine can, cutting a hole in the middle, and running strings up and down a tangan-tangan branch. He was one of the first ukulele students on the island.

Thus started Olopai’s dance between his traditional Carolinian traditions and the Western world. Born in 1940, he was only 4 when his family hid in a cave during the American invasion, his elders scared for their lives as spotter planes rained bullets down around them.

For Olopai, he was simply curious. What was this ping-ping sound against the rock? And, then, while living in the internment camp, what was that wonderful sweet the GIs threw out of their trucks? He quickly learned his first English words: “Hey Joe, have candy!”

Olopai considers himself lucky. After the war, as the oldest son, he was pulled out of the one school on island—where he shared one English textbook with his classmates—to help his family and learn their Refaluwasch traditions. He fished with the elders, blew the conch to announce community meetings, and sat for hours on the meeting house floor listening quietly to their chief’s booming voice. This is when he first learned that he had family on other islands. Family who were good fishermen, great canoe builders, celestial navigators and medicine healers.

But the Western world beckoned again when Olopai was recruited to teach Chamorro and Carolinian for the U.S. Peace Corps on island, where he befriended a group of young, outspoken Americans who told him, “Hey, you can speak up to your government.”

As the plebiscite loomed on the horizon to choose the island’s governing future, Olopai was caught in the balance between his Carolinian traditions and a new civil government. Leaders born into their role as chief versus leaders elected by choice.

As the island politics heated up, Olopai knew—the island would become part of the United States.

Lino Olopai still feels deeply connected to his Refaluwasch culture.

“I knew it would impact my language and culture as a minority Carolinian,” Olopai said. “Where am I going to be in this new government that I know nothing about? It was scary for me to be in that situation.”
When the opportunity came to sail to his ancestral home in the Caroline Islands, he took it, sailing 15 days on a traditional Carolinian canoe to the island of Satawal.

“I thought I was going to die,” he said, remembering how he bailed water out of the deep canoe the entire journey.

He stayed for three years in his ancestral islands, an experience that changed him, reinforcing much of what he had learned growing up.

And when Olopai returned to Saipan, he was reconnected to his culture. But it’s no easy task—to balance tradition with a changing world. And, now, at 80, Olopai still worries about the future.

“Our education system is very imbalanced—a Western-written history that we’ve fed our kids from Kindergarten to college.”

Olopai stands on his front porch and looks up to the ironwoods that tower above him and out toward the shining sea.

“Do you know fish hide under the sand? Do you know they change color? Be careful—that’s a sea urchin. Or, that’s a poisonous fish, don’t eat it. We don’t have this knowledge anymore.”

He picks up his sardine-can ukulele, made for the upcoming Ukulele Festival. He smiles and laughs, shaking his head at his memories.

“Man, we were having a blast,” Olopai said. “What else did we have to do? No rice cooker. No McDonald’s. No movie theater. So this is it. And, it was just awesome.”


Lindsay Nash is a writer and photographer who lives on Saipan. She is a member of the Marianas Writers’ Movement and is currently writing a novel about 20th century Saipan. To contact her, send an email to

Disclaimer: Comments are moderated. They will not appear immediately or even on the same day. Comments should be related to the topic. Off-topic comments would be deleted. Profanities are not allowed. Comments that are potentially libelous, inflammatory, or slanderous would be deleted.