Roy Sakuma credits the ukulele with shaping — and saving — his life. He was a troubled teen growing up in Makiki when he heard the song "Sushi" by ukulele virtuoso Herb "Ohta-San" Ohta on the radio.
"I loved it!" Sakuma recalled. "It really made me want to learn how to play the ukulele, so I contacted Ohta-San and asked him to teach me. My goal was to become the best ukulele player in the world."
Then 16, Sakuma studied with Ohta-San for about 18 months. "I practiced eight to 10 hours a day and wore out the frets on my ukulele, but it kept me on the right path," he said. "I believe that learning to play the ukulele was a major turning point in my life."
In 1966, when Ohta-San was asked to record and tour in Japan, he asked Sakuma to take over his classes for him. "I really enjoyed doing that," Sakuma said. "It was then that I discovered my true calling was to teach ukulele rather than to perform."
Today, Sakuma and his wife, Kathy, run four ukulele schools on Oahu. In 2004 they established Ukulele Festival Hawaii, whose mission is "to bring laughter, love and hope to children and adults throughout Hawaii and the world through the music of the ukulele."
Sakuma speaks regularly at schools, churches, Rotary clubs and other organizations on behalf of the nonprofit organization. His students perform at shopping malls, senior citizen centers and community events. In addition to offering free lessons, college scholarships and donations of ukulele to underprivileged children, Ukulele Festival Hawaii presents annual Ukulele Festivals on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island.
Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
When: Sunday, July 18
Time: 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Notes: Free shuttle service between Kapiolani Community College and the Bandstand will be available from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and between the Ala Moana Hotel and the Bandstand from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. The hotel is offering festival attendees special room rates starting at $95 per night. Call 955-4811 or toll free (800) 446-8990 from the neighbor islands. … Ukulele Festival Hawaii will be holding a fund-raising gala on Friday, July 16, at the Ala Moana Hotel’s Hibiscus Ballroom beginning at 5:30 p.m. Proceeds will help support the Ukulele Festival and graduating high school seniors who are furthering their education and have an interest in and talent for playing the ukulele. Tickets cost $65. For reservations or more information, call 486-0546, e-mail or view the website.
» 9:30 a.m.: Hookani Pila
The Oahu festival is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year; Sakuma launched it when he was a 22-year-old groundskeeper at Kapiolani Park. While lunching with co-workers at the bandstand one day, he said, "My dream is to put on an Ukulele Festival." Overhearing him, a man sitting nearby said, "Dreams come true."
Inspired by those words, Sakuma went to City Hall after work and set the wheels in motion. Assisted by friends and volunteers, he staged the inaugural Ukulele Festival at the bandstand in the summer of 1971 with 50 performers, including himself.
Over the years, it has grown to be the largest event of its kind in the world, spotlighting performers from Sweden, England, New Zealand, Canada, Guam, Japan, Tonga and Tahiti as well as Hawaii.
This year, Nicoo, a performer from France, will join a stellar slate of local talent, including Jake Shimabukuro, Cecilio & Kapono, Ohta-San, Herb Ohta Jr. and 800 children whom Sakuma calls the "real stars of the show." Danny Kaleikini, Hawaii’s "Ambassador of Aloha," will be the emcee for the 39th consecutive year.
Also planned are ukulele giveaways; sales of Ukulele Festival pins, T-shirts and recyclable tote bags; and displays by well-known manufacturers Kamaka, KoAloha, Kala, Koolau and Martin. Kanilea Ukulele will be selling its instruments, and new this year is a tent where people can learn to play and care for the ukulele.
Wherever he goes, whatever he does, Sakuma enjoys spreading good will via the ukulele. He befriended Grammy Award-winning vocalist James Ingram while jogging at Cooke Field at the University of Hawaii and gave him a cassette tape of Ohta-San’s music. "The following year, in 1994, he was our special guest at the Ukulele Festival," Sakuma said. "He returned three more times, and in 2004 he wrote the song ‘Come and Join Us’ with me, which has become the festival’s theme song."
Also at the 1994 festival, Israel Kamakawiwoole was on hand to play "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with a band of 300 children. "It was truly a chicken-skin performance," Sakuma said. "Who knew that IZ and that song would one day become famous all over the world?"
Shimabukuro, the recipient of multiple Na Hoku Hanohano awards, also has played a major role in bringing visibility to the versatile ukulele. He has toured with Jimmy Buffet and the Coral Reefer Band, performed with Bette Midler before the queen of England and is featured on the latest album of acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Many other isle performers — among them Eddie Kamae, Peter Moon, Kelly Boy De Lima and the Kaau Crater Boys — have contributed to the ukulele’s worldwide renown.
In fact, ukulele festivals are now held throughout the mainland, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Guam, Tahiti, Sweden, Spain, France, Germany and England.
Sakuma is delighted to know there are visitors who return to Hawaii every July specifically to attend Oahu’s festival; he recently met a woman from the mainland who’ll be attending the event for the 15th consecutive year.
"They love the music, and they love the atmosphere of aloha," he said. "The ukulele brings joy, peace and comfort. Hold it gently in your arms and you’ll smile and instantly feel a connection to it. The ukulele also connects people. Come to the festival next Sunday and you’ll feel like you’re at a gathering of friends from all over the world."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.