The East-West Center Honors Barbara B. Smith


The East-West Center lost one of its earliest advocates and dearest mentors, Professor Emerita Barbara B. Smith, on July 3rd, 2021. A brilliant and devoted artist, researcher, and educator, Prof. Smith dedicated her life to fostering scholarship and performance both in Hawaiʻi and throughout Asia and the Pacific. In 1959, aligning with her own vision that pioneered the emerging field of ethnomusicology, Prof. Smith strongly advocated for the establishment of the East-West Center at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa—a Center for Cultural and Technical Interchange between East and West. 

As a professor of piano and music theory at the University of Hawaiʻi beginning in 1949, Prof. Smith identified early on a discrepancy between the Western music culture she was teaching and the Asian and Pacific cultures of her ethnically diverse students. In a message shared at her 101st birthday celebration, Prof. Smith said, “It was what I learned from the students when they were talking among themselves that forced me to think about some changes in the curriculum at the University of Hawaiʻi. So, having decided that and finding no one else to do anything about it, then I felt I had to. And it has led to an extraordinarily wonderful life, both at the University, and at the East-West Center.”  

Professor Emerita Barbara B. Smith with an EWC group from 1973 as part of the trainings she organized and conducted on ethnomusicological skills as well as museum and collections management.
Professor Emerita Barbara B. Smith with an EWC group from 1973 as part of the trainings she organized and conducted
on ethnomusicological skills as well as museum and collections management.

During the years 1973-76, Prof. Smith served as an EWC Senior Fellow, designing and leading performing arts seminars as part of the Pacific Cultural Centers Program intended to assist Pacific and Asian nations in their development of “living” museums and other public cultural institutions. Participants—many of them mid-career professionals—came from such diverse regions as American Samoa, Chuuk, the Cook Islands, Fiji, Indonesia, Korea, Palau, Samoa, the Solomon Islands, and Tibet. An earlier music program had also involved participants from Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, and Pohnpei. 

“While we mourn the passing of Professor Barbara Barnard Smith, we simultaneously pay tribute to a long and amazingly wonderful life that touched so many of us at the East-West Center and around the world,” says Dr. Richard Vuylsteke, EWC president. “After I returned to the Center in 2017, I was especially fortunate that our early acquaintance in the 1970s swiftly evolved into a very special friendship. Behind Barbara’s elegant demeanor and extraordinary smile was a dedicated scholar, teacher, mentor – and intellectual and financial supporter of academic institutions – with exceptional fixity of purpose and clarity of mission. Despite her unquestionable success, she remained humble, gracious, and devoted to a life of service and friendship without bounds. We will miss her so very much, but we are also so very fortunate to have been part of her life.” 

Professor Smith was particularly supportive of the Center’s Arts Program. Bill Feltz, EWC Adjunct Specialist and former Arts Program Manager, said “Barbara made possible many of the most memorable EWC performance residencies by accomplished artists from such countries as Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, Guam, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), New Caledonia, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and the highland areas of Southeast Asia and China. She also firmly believed Hawaiian cultural practices—mele, hula, oli, ‘ōlelo—were essential to educational and cultural efforts at the Center. Notably, her support helped make possible EWC outreach into schools, libraries, and communities throughout O‘āhu and all the Neighbor Islands by both international and local performers.”  

Professor Emerita Barbara B. Smith dances in a traditional Korean hanbok dress with performer Mikyong Go from Jindo Island.   Linda Adamson, photographer Kahala Nui, Honolulu, HI 2012
Professor Emerita Barbara B. Smith dances
in a traditional Korean hanbok dress
with performer Mikyong Go from Jindo Island. 
Linda Adamson, photographer 
Kahala Nui, Honolulu, HI 

In February 2020, the EWC Gallery featured an exhibition highlighting the instrument collection that Prof. Smith began decades ago at the UH Mānoa Music Department. In June 2020, the EWC Arts Program kicked off a series of virtual events in honor of Prof. Smith’s 100th birthday, which concluded just a few weeks ago, celebrating her 101st. Arts Program Coordinator Eric Chang commented, “Despite all the loss and hardship caused by the pandemic, one silver lining for many was the connection to Barbara Smith that brought us together again and again virtually this past year. The East-West Center is indebted to Prof. Barbara B. Smith for her significant role in enriching the institution and its scholars, the Hawaiʻi community, and the academic and artistic communities beyond. A pioneer in so many ways and a guiding light to so many, as the proverbial pebble in the pond Barbara has created not ripples but great waves. Her spirit of curiosity, generosity, and excellence endures in all those who were lucky enough to have received her mentorship.”  

To honor Prof. Smith’s wishes, there will be no memorial service. Her ashes will be scattered at her favorite surfing spot, as longboarding was a cherished pastime during her early years at UH Mānoa. Messages of condolence can be sent to her ʻohana through her email account [email protected], and donations in her memory can be made to the East-West Center Arts Program, the UH Foundation, or the Museum of Ventura County

Mahalo nui loa, Barbara. Aloha ʻoe. 

Watch the EWC Arts Program’s webinar and performance programs “In Honor of Barbara B. Smith” 


Checks to the East-West Center can be made payable to:  

East-West Center Foundation
1601 East-West Road
Honolulu, HI 96848 

Add "Arts Program - Barbara Smith" in the memo section. Please include your email and/or mailing address so your gift can be acknowledged.