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Saturday, Feb. 24, 2007

In Harlem, living on a prayer


By BETH HILLMAN
Contributing writer

On a chilly Saturday afternoon in a narrow, unassuming Harlem church, three sopranos fill the room with the first reluctant notes of a gospel hymn. "Lord, I will lift mine eyes to the hill," they sing.

News photo
TOMMY TOMITA stands in front of the New Hope Community Church in central Harlem, where he holds a weekly gospel workshop for Japanese expatriates and tourists. BETH HILLMAN PHOTO

"Don't be passive about it," scolds the Rev. Terrance Kennedy from his spot behind the organ. "I can't even hear that. Can I have more sound please?"

The women nod sheepishly. It's their first attempt at the song. It's also not in their first language.

The three are Japanese expatriates who have joined the weekly gospel workshop organized by longtime Harlem resident and professional tour guide Tommy Tomita, who sits in a pew near the back, peering intently at a Bible through oval glasses.

Tomita makes a living introducing Japanese visitors and expatriates to his adopted home through jazz tours, soul food dinners, church visits, shows at the Apollo Theater and this gospel workshop, now in its 10th year.

Tomita's reign as the foremost Japanese expert on Harlem is long and involved. A jazz fan who opened three clubs in Tokyo, he moved to Harlem 21 years ago to hear the music in its true environment -- with no connections or knowledge of the city.

"Every day, I walked around Harlem, going to clubs and churches," Tomita says of his first days in New York. "Gradually, people got to know me."

Over the subsequent decades, Tomita established his tour company and a prominent role in the community, serving as member of the Harlem Chamber of Commerce and receiving a prize from the civic league in 1994 for his extensive volunteer work, such as organizing tap dance and jazz performances at nursing homes.

For Tomita, Harlem's charm comes from its people, who he says are "friendly, kind and accepting." Another of his loves is soul food, including favorites like collard greens, fried chicken and oxtail, which he sometimes cooks himself.

Though Tomita was shot twice in his torso 20 years ago and has been robbed at knifepoint more than 10 times, he claims Harlem is safe. He emphasizes that he's never had any problems on his tours, which, at 66, he still operates every night until one or two in the morning.

News photo
JAPANESE RESIDENTS of New York sing a gospel number at Tommy Tomita's gospel workshop in central Harlem.

Rather than feeling commodified by gawking sightseers, Tomita says residents have been nothing but eager to introduce their hometown to tourists.

One enthusiastic New York native is Kennedy, who has been teaching the gospel class for five years, attempting to impart the music's deeper meaning to the Japanese, many of whom know only it from "Sister Act."

To black Americans, gospel is a form of prayer, a way of teaching about Jesus, explains Kiyo Yamazaki after the students have joined hands in group prayer. Yamazaki attended Tomita's class four years ago, then converted to Christianity, joined the church and now volunteers as translator.

The students rise to practice "Total Praise," Yamazaki explaining the meaning of each line in Japanese and Kennedy coaching them on how to shape their mouths, making them repeat the "th" in "strength" about 10 times.

Though the lyrics praise God, most members of the class are not Christian.

For the students, the difference in religious beliefs does not prevent them from feeling a deep connection to gospel. "In Japan, when I hear about God it seems strange," says Yoshitaka Suzuki, a dance student who has attended the class for about a year. "But even though it's mostly black people and I'm Japanese, I know it's weird, but singing gospel feels really natural."

To Tomita, who plans to officially convert to Christianity, this feeling of comfort is not strange at all. "I don't like going back to Japan," he says. "This is my home."

Indeed, he looks very much at home as he ambles along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. huddling inside a brown puffy jacket, his breath rising in white clouds and dissipating in the sea of faces that fill Harlem's main street.

Two days after heavy snowfall, Tomita is leading his "Harlem Walking Tour," trudging through mushy brown sludge. The weather has caused two cancellations, meaning that he's trailed by only one sightseer, Tomoyuki Umano, who, after this spring vacation, will become a junior high social studies teacher.

"I didn't want to just go to places in a guidebook," Umano says of his decision to join the tour, which costs $50. "I thought I could learn more from someone like Tommy who has been here and knows a lot."

Tomita's tour began with taking the A train into Harlem, an homage to the song, and visited the residences of Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, George Washington and Tomita himself.

Photographs of musicians famous in both America and Japan cover the orange walls of Tomita's living room, including an autographed shot of Sammy Davis Jr. and a picture of Tomita posing with Ken Hirai, who Tomita arranged to have perform at the Apollo Theater.

Now the two stride through glass doors into the theater, the tour's last stop and the one that Umano's been looking forward to most. As they walk past a collage of famous artists who got their start at the Apollo, the woman perched at the entrance -- the theater's stage manager -- lurches up and pulls Tomita into a hug. "How you doing, Tommy?" she says as he plants a kiss on her cheek.

He explains the history and traditions of the Apollo -- how the audience boos when they don't enjoy the show (which, Tomita says, nearly happened to Hirai) and how an 11-year-old Japanese boy named Atsushi once wowed the crowd with a Whitney Houston number. Umano takes copious notes and snaps numerous photos at each location -- he plans to teach his future students about Harlem.

Passengers for a tour like today's used to fill two buses, Tomita says, but since Sept. 11 caused a sharp decline in Japanese tourism, times have been tough.

More than five years later, Japanese tourists are still skittish about New York. "When I told my parents and friends I was coming here," Umano said. "Everyone was like, 'Isn't it dangerous?' "

Tomita dismisses that claim with a fervent shake of his head. The biggest fright he's had recently was when he made natto-maki sushi for a potluck party. His friends' reaction to the fermented soy beans verged on violent. "Everyone was yelling at me," he says, chuckling. "It was really terrible for a little while."

For more information about Tommy Tomita and his Harlem tours, see tommytomita.com.


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