A Passion for the Uke

By Fish, Peter | Sunset, July 2002 | Go to article overview

A Passion for the Uke


Fish, Peter, Sunset


* HONOLULU-From Kapiolani Park, you see the glaring white towers of Waikiki rising a block away. But on this July morning, Kapiolani belongs to a gender, greener Hawaii. Grownups arrange themselves in lawn chairs. Kids lap shave ices that melt in the sun. Then, from the bandstand, comes the plink, plink, plink that for more than 120 years has been the sound of Hawaii.

"The ukulele is my passion," says Roy Sakuma. "I love it so much."

Roy Sakuma is Hawaii's ukulele impresario: the figure who has rescued the instrument from near-oblivion.

Like two other symbols of Hawaii, the pineapple and the macadamia nut, the ukulele is in fact an immigrant. In 1879, settlers from the Portuguese island of Madeira brought with them a small, four-string instrument called the braguinba. Almost immediately, the newcomer became enormously popular-quickly acquiring a Hawaiian name that (one etymology has it) means "jumping flea" for the way a player's fingers hop the strings.

When, in the early 20th century, mainland America fell in love with Hawaii, it fell in love with the uke too. Portable and easy to learn, the ukulele swept the nation, plunked in the movies by Bing Crosby, on television by Arthur Godfrey and, later, on the Day-Glo sets of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In by Tiny Tim.

And therein lay the instrument's downfall. One thing you can say about Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim is that neither is remotely hip. As American youth latched onto the larger, louder, more swaggering guitar, the self-effacing-no one has ever played air ukulele-little instrument from Hawaii was relegated to the attic.

Says Jim Beloff, author of The Ukulele: A Visual History, "Hard as it is to believe, even here on the Islands, it was part of the past."

That was what Roy Sakuma set out to change. He had been taught the ukulele by a master-Herb Ohta, invariably referred to as Ohta-san to honor both his musicianship and his popularity in Japan and Hawaii. Sakuma knew the instrument's true worth. And so for three decades, he has spread the gospel of the ukulele, teaching students and promoting a festival that now draws performers from around the world.

Some of what you hear at the Ukulele Festival seems designed to make you say, Wow-they play that on the ukulele? Last year's example of this genre was the Langley Ukulele Ensemble's performance of the William Tell Overture. When I complimented the ensemble, director Peter Luongo told me, "You should hear our 'Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."'

Other performers dazzle. …

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