The children loved the ukulele, right from the start. They played it all the time. At home. In the car. Their little fingers were born to strum.
But even as their mother marveled at their unyielding enthusiasm, the music broke her heart.
Every note they played reminded Wehi Kamakawiwoole of her late father, Israel Kamakawiwoole, the most beloved ukulele player in modern Hawaiian history. Wehi was 14 when he died in 1997.
And then, something changed, and the music—Iz’s music—brought her peace.
In a surprising turn of emotions for her, as Wehi listened to her father’s music, the power of his gentle strumming and his warm tenor changed her.
Now, when her children perform Sunday at the 40th annual Ukulele Festival in Waikiki, Wehi expects to feel the deliverance of song, the power of youth and the love of her father.
"Instruments aren’t my thing, but to see this reflected in my kids is really bittersweet," she said. "It’s untouchable in terms of how to describe it and how it causes me to feel. But it is very comforting to see there is a reflection of him in front of me, every day, through my children."
40TH ANNUAL UKULELE FESTIVAL
Featured performers include Jake Shimabukuro, Cecilio & Kapono, James Hill, Ohta-San, Herb Ohta Jr., Bryan Tolentino, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Tommy D, Hookani Pila, Da Hawaii Seniors of Cerritos, Sunset Strummers, Yuji Igarashi and Kolohe Imamura, George Matsushita, Nihon Ukulele Association, Yamaha Music School of Ukulele and Nico Salsac.
Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
When: 9 a.m. 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Note: Free shuttle service is provided from Kapiolani Community College parking lot to the bandstand, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Sunday
Kiara Parker-Kamakawiwoole, 10, and Elijah Parker-Kamakawiwoole, 8, have appeared before at the festival, founded by their music teacher, Roy Sakuma. They are the oldest of Wehi’s five children.
Kathy Sakuma taught the two children their first ukulele lessons and has watched them grow. In many ways, they are like her other students: happy and eager to learn.
But Sakuma has seen something more.
"It is really nice to see the children take to the ukulele and embrace it the way they have," she said. "It is quite evident that there is something that was passed on to them, and I believe it is just in their blood."
The first time Kiara and Elijah performed with the festival, they played "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," a song their grandfather recorded. It remains a special memory for Sakuma.
"I recognized the connection and I thought, ‘How appropriate,’" she said.
"I think Iz must have been smiling down on his grandchildren."
IZ, a massive Hawaiian whose death at age 38 left the community shocked with loss, would pass the time with his daughter Wehi by playing music and singing. The memories left a scar on her emotions, she said.
"He would say, ‘Mimic me,’ and I would do my best," Wehi said. "After he passed, I didn’t want to hear that. It was too close to the heart."
Ironically, it took additional pain to create the change. In recent months, Wehi watched the daughter of a childhood friend battle leukemia, and decided to make a tribute video for YouTube.
There was never a question about the soundtrack for the video: Her father’s version of "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World."
"For two weeks, I listened to my father’s music and that ukulele—and that ‘oooh’ in the beginning brought me an amazing peace I have not felt," Wehi said.
"Once I started hearing the lyrics, that is when the bitterness and the hardships started to subside."
Her children know their grandfather’s songs, even though they never knew him.
When the grandchildren play a song associated with Iz—sometimes on one of his old ukulele—everyone around them can’t help but smile.
"They have musical DNA," said Mountain Apple producer Jon de Mello, a longtime friend of their grandfather. "It’s like … wow."
During the festival, the children will perform with several hundred other students, a pair of faces in the crowd of eager young musicians.
But for the first time, their mother won’t want to turn around and walk away. She’s been drawn into the fold, an eager parent bursting with excitement.
"I think I will be able to just be open and accepting of the event," she said. "I can just go into this being me and experiencing it like it should be. I can go there and enjoy it to the fullest."