“Bringing Glad Tidings,” New Era, Dec. 1986, 20
Christmas takes on an extra dimension in the Wolfgramm home. Sure, with 14 kids, the holidays are bound to be exciting. And when eight of those kids are members of the well-known musical group called “The Jets,” you can imagine that there might be a little extra sparkle in the season.
But Christmas has a special significance for the Wolfgramms for a deeper reason. They know that on the first Christmas day their ancestors in America were receiving the glad tidings that they would be freed from physical death, while shepherds near Bethlehem listened to angelic choirs telling them they would be freed from spiritual death.
The Book of Mormon is not just a history book, nor just a book of scripture, for the Wolfgramm kids, whose parents migrated from Tonga to Salt Lake City nearly 20 years ago. It’s the story of their family—their relatives. Its sacred pages help them trace their genealogy back to Adam, through their 88th great-grandfather, Nephi.
You’d be hard pressed to find a family more devoted to the study of the Book of Mormon, or to the values it teaches. Now that may sound hard to believe when the family is so deeply involved in the world of entertainment, a world that seems gaudy and corrupt to some. But it’s the Book of Mormon and the family unity that they say keeps them apart from the seamier side of the industry.
“It’s a temptation to succumb to all that,” says Eugene, 19, who sings and plays percussion for the Jets. “But when you have good parents and make sure you have family home evening, you pay your tithing, read the scriptures, and do all the things the prophet says, you’re blessed.”
And blessed they have been. Right now, the Jets, their group that consists of eight family members ages 12–20, has two hit singles to their credit, and a third is on its way up the charts. Both their albums, one that contains fresh, clean dance music and another of Christmas songs, are doing well, and their lively music videos are favorites all over the world.
“But the key to us getting this far is what Gene just said,” Leroy, the eldest and leader of the group affirms. “It’s a long story of obedience and hard work.”
Their story parallels that of their ancestors in the Book of Mormon to some degree. Their parents, Mike and Vake, left their homeland and crossed the sea for religious reasons. Back then there were no temples in the South Pacific, and they came to Salt Lake City to be sealed together. They didn’t have the funds to make it back to Tonga, however, so they stayed in the States and began adding to their family.
Like the family of Lehi, the Wolfgramms had to work hard to carve a place for themselves in their new country. In addition to other jobs, the parents were involved in Polynesian performing groups in the Salt Lake area. As soon as the children were old enough to walk and talk, they were taught to play, sing, and dance in the Polynesian tradition. They eagerly took to the stage, and soon the family had a Polynesian group of their own.
They never did take professional music or dance lessons. What their parents couldn’t teach them, they picked up by ear. Today they admit to getting some professional pointers on warming up their voices before concerts. But for the most part they are self-taught musicians, which seems quite amazing when you watch them manipulate synthesizers, guitars, and a number of percussion and brass instruments.
The Wolfgramms took their Polynesian show on the road and traveled all over the United States and Canada. When they got a full-time offer from a Hawaiian hotel chain in Minneapolis, they packed their bags and moved. Minneapolis was about as far removed from Tonga as it could possibly be, but the Wolfgramms liked it there and contributed to the local ward as well as to the local entertainment industry. The missionaries in the area could always find a willing member of the family to go on splits with them, and their refreshing performances stimulated a lot of questions from the audiences about “what makes them so different?”
They were devastated, then, when the hotel chain they were working with folded. For several months the family of 15 lived in the hotel owners’ basement. They decided that it would be more profitable to switch from Polynesian to pop music, and they began traveling in an old, uninsulated van, to whatever engagements they could scrape up. “The van didn’t have any seats,” Leroy recalls, “and we sat in chairs against the sides. Sometimes we traveled in 40 below temperatures, and there would be ice on the roof—on the inside. We had no money, but Dad knows how to survive. When we didn’t have any place to stay, Dad would say ‘Let’s try camping in the snow—it’s different!’”
“Those were crazy days,” Eugene adds. “We’d live on balogna sandwiches, stop at a gas station to wash our faces, then go in and perform.”
Finally, however, their efforts and dedication payed off. Don Powell, an entertainment industry expert who had managed some top groups in the 60s and 70s, heard them play. He had retired from entertainment because the industry had become “so bizarre,” but when he heard the Wolfgramms, his interest was rekindled.
“The reason I reentered this business was literally because of this family,” says Don, who had had very little contact with the LDS church before he met the Wolfgramms. “They’re just too good to be true. Not only are they tremendously talented, but they have an unusually strong work ethic for their age. The whole family is so loving and bright, I couldn’t help getting involved. And we’ll never have problems with drugs or alcohol or anything like that, as you do with so many entertainers. It’s absolute heaven to manage them.”
That was two years ago. Today, although their careers have meteored, the Jets have still stayed pretty much the same. Now, instead of a van with no seats, people send limousines to chauffeur them around, but the kids prefer the family bus. “Riding around in limos is like a dream,” says Kathy, 15, who sings and plays the keyboards. “But it gives me a headache, and everyone stares at you.”
Thousands of fans may collect in an arena to hear the Jets play, and they may clap and shout and cheer for their music, but the Jets are most excited when they can get backstage to see the newest addition to their family, the tiny baby brother their mother has brought out on the tour to see them. They also prefer the homemade chocolate chip cookies Mom brought along to the exotic food provided for them in their dressing rooms.
And although every minute of every day is packed full of performances, appearances, interviews, tapings, and photography sessions, a Monday doesn’t go by without a family home evening. If they happen to be on the road on any given Monday, the road crew is invited, and a lot of missionary work is done at these times.
Sometimes, when the Jets are traveling, it’s a bit difficult to find chapels for Sunday services, so the family has received special permission to hold their own sacrament services. With each boy bearing the priesthood, all the ordinances can be taken care of. “Besides,” laughs Leroy, “the people in our home ward are probably happy to see us gone on fast Sundays. When the whole family bears their testimonies, there isn’t much time left for anyone else.”
And they still wear homemade clothes. Their costumes, which are bright, exciting, and rival anything else you’ll see on stage without betraying LDS standards, are designed and sewn by their mother, who learned tailoring when she worked at the Beehive Clothing Mills in Salt Lake City.
Their days are hectic, but like other kids, they take time out to study, see their tutors, and complete their home-study courses. Most important of all, however, is the time they always find for scripture study.
And they don’t just read the scriptures. They memorize and ingest them. It is at this point in their lives when they hope they can benefit from their ancestors’ mistakes and not fall victim to the “Nephite Syndrome” of becoming prosperous and forgetting the Lord. “The scriptures that mean most to us right now are in Helaman, chapter 12,” says Rudy, 15, who plays percussion, sings, and does the choreography for the group. The rest of the boys say that he is the Nephi of the family, and his sensitive nature reflects that. “That chapter talks about the nothingness of man, and how we must rely on the arm of the Lord in all things,” he says.
The Wolfgramms take the lessons they learn from the Book of Mormon seriously, as they do their church attendance. “A lot of people think we’re so serious when we go to church,” says Haini, 16, who is probably the quietest of all the Wolfgramms but is energetic in spite of it, especially on the football field and basketball court. “But church is not a social thing on Sunday for us. It’s worship.”
Although Eugene is considered to be the jester of the family, he adds, “When we go to church, it’s for real. It’s no joke.”
The music the Jets play is upbeat, positive, and lively, but there’s a serious side to that, too. “Our church classes teach us about the power of music, and how it can destroy the mind,” explains Leroy, “but we know from the hymns that music can also build and uplift, so there are two sides to the power of music. We try to lift people with our music in a contemporary way. Satan has always got his crew pulling one way, and the Lord has always got his crew pulling the other. We’re on the Lord’s side, pulling as hard as we can.”
It’s a close-knit family, and at least one of the parents tries to be on the road with the group all the time. The six younger members of the family, including a set of twins, take turns traveling with the group and are excited about the day they’ll be able to perform too.
“I like to be with them as much as I can,” says Sister Wolfgramm, who looks and feels almost as young as her children. “But even when I can’t be there, they look out for each other. We stick together as a family. The brothers look out for their sisters, and we know that if we all work together, it will be all right.”
But doesn’t she worry about outside influences seeping in and affecting her children? “No,” she says. “They read the scriptures. There’s nothing else that will help them as much to resist dangerous temptation. It’s what their father and I have taught them all their lives.”
The scriptures have played an important role in the lives of the Wolfgramms, and this Christmas they help remind the family of the prices their ancestors payed in the past so that they might be in their unique position today. And the Wolfgramms try to repay their ancestors by telling others about them. “This talent we’ve been given is a vehicle to spread the gospel,” says Leroy, and his brothers and sisters nod their heads enthusiastically. “We carry a lot of copies of the Book of Mormon around so we can give them away.”
That’s the Wolfgramms for you. Through song and through scripture, they’re bringing glad tidings wherever they go.