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Move to make ukulele state instrument needs fine tuning

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    An ukulele session at the Waikiki Community Center.
    Clockwise from the front: pu'ili (bamboo), papa hehi with kala'au (koa footboard), ipu heke (kumu's ipu), pahu (drum), ipu heke 'ole (single gourd), puniu (knee drum), 'uli 'uli (feathered gourd), kala'au (sticks), 'ulili (triple gourd) and 'ili 'ili (stones).

The decision to name a state instrument in Hawaii is proving more difficult than some lawmakers expected.

At first, it seemed a proposal to give the title to the ukulele it was going to be an easy bill to pass. But then fans of the steel guitar and instruments like the ipu gourd made a case that their sounds should represent Hawaii.

Now, with less than two weeks left in the legislative session, lawmakers are trying to find a way to please everyone before they run out of time.

“It’s surprising that with all the huge, substantive bills that we’re discussing here, ukulele is one of the more controversial bills this Legislative session,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai, D-Kalihi, chairman on the Senate side of the bill’s conference committee. “I think the public feels strongly about what they feel should be a designated anything. Whether it’s a ukulele, bird, flower, color or smell, people have strong opinions about those issues.”

To please more musicians, lawmakers are considering naming one “ancient” instrument and one “modern” instrument, he said. That could leave room for both the steel guitar and ukulele lobbies to have their way.

Members of the Senate want to leave the decision up to a group of children to decide which musical tradition should represent the state. Children chose the state fish years ago, picking the humuhumunukunukuapuaa, a fish that isn’t unique to Hawaii, Wakai said.

“We have precedent on going down this route, and we thought, because of the controversy, why don’t we let the children take a second crack at designating our state symbol again?” Wakai said.

But adults don’t want to be left out of the process, and neither do lawmakers, said Rep. Mark Takai, D-Aiea, chairman on the House side of the conference committee considering the ukulele bills.

“Ultimately, the Legislature is going to have to pass a law, and we can’t handcuff a future Legislature,” Takai said.

House members thought it might be less touchy to designate the ukulele the state musical string instrument, rather than overall state instrument, leaving room for the likes of pahu drums and nose flutes to have a moment in the spotlight. On the House side, the ukulele reigns supreme.

“Being able to carry the ukulele, versus the steel guitar, makes the ukulele much more popular and common,” Takai said. “I think a lot of people, both in Hawaii and out of Hawaii, see the ukulele as our state instrument” — then he corrected himself — “state musical string instrument.”

A panel that met Tuesday on two competing bills said the proposals need more work. They plan to meet again on Thursday.

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