The `ukulele has been part of Hawai`i’s culture for more than a century. Once a fading art form, today it brings international kudos as a solo instrument, thanks to tireless musicians and teachers who have worked hard to keep it by our fingertips.
One such teacher is Roy Sakuma. Founder of four `ukulele schools and a legend in his own right, Sakuma and his wife Kathy produced Oahu’s first `Ukulele Festival in 1971. Since then, they’ve brought the tradition to the Big Island and Kauai. The free event annually draws thousands of artists and fans all over the globe, and is finally making its way to our shores.
“It’s very exciting,” Sakuma said. “We have always wanted to bring the festival to Maui. [The Maui Arts & Cultural Center] believed in what we are doing and saw the natural connection between the festival and the community and it’s just going to grow.”
Those attending can enjoy a picnic and the hypnotic melodies of virtuoso performer Herb “Ohta-san” Ohta, whose musical career has spanned an incredible 40 years and more than 50 acclaimed releases. Winner of the Na Hoku Hanohano Lifetime Achievement award, it was Ohta’s “Sushi” song in 1964 that captivated Sakuma, then freshly kicked out of high school. A meeting with the maestro led Sakuma to intensive training and soon, the self-proclaimed “lost child” turned into Ohta’s brilliant protege.
“I loved that song so much, that the music became a life-long passion,” Sakuma said. “My wife and I wanted to build a foundation that can carry on without us and keep the `ukulele recognized throughout the world.”
In 1974, Roy Sakuma `Ukulele Studios opened its doors and welcomed future string masters. Taking the leap into original production, the Sakuma couple also established their own record label in 1987.
The label’s releases feature notable works from award-winning Holunape—who will grace the stage this weekend—Ka’au Crater Boys, Noel Okimoto, Daniel Ho, Herb Ohta Jr. and, of course, the great Ohta-San.
“The show will be such a wonderful surprise to the audience,” Sakuma said. Festival highlights include guitarist Nando Suan, father-son trio Manoa DNA, Hula Honeys, Da `Ukulele Boys, Kalama ‘Ukulele Band, and Alu Like `Ukulele Kapuna.
To sweeten the deal even more, fine new `ukuleles will be given away in drawings throughout the afternoon, from the houses of Kamaka, KoAloha, GString, Kanile`a, Pono, Mele, Kala and KoAlana.
There’s also a free, all-ages workshop by the Sakumas on Saturday, Oct. 14, from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Attendees are required to bring their own `ukulele, paper and pencil. To reserve a spot, call 242-2787.
“I’ve taught 40,000 in my lifetime, mostly children,” Sakuma said. “Once you’ve learned the `ukulele, you’ll never forget it. It’s an ideal instrument to carry and it’s been an inspiration to so many children. You can branch out to other instruments. It’s easy for a five- or six-year-old kid to learn, which is an ideal age to start.
“I will teach three simple chords and a basic strumming pattern,” he said. “Plus some secret techniques I’ve developed throughout my years of teaching.”
Log on to mauiarts.org and roysakuma.net for more info. Event sponsors include the County of Maui, KPOA radio, Starbucks as well as this paper. In celebration of the festival, Friday, Oct. 13, will be the signing of the Mayor’s Proclamation for `Ukulele Week on Maui. MTW