The Ukulele Festival Celebrates 39 Years

Melissa Moniz
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Friday - July 08, 2009
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Timothy Kaneshiro, Aidan Laprete Powell and Lowen Fernandes perform at last year’s Ukulele Festival

The ukulele has become a symbol of Hawaii to people all over the world and a mainstay in our local music. But it wasn’t always that way. Before talents such as Jake Shimabukuro and Roy Sakuma, the four-stringed instrument struggled to earn the respect it deserved.

It’s been 130 years since the “baby” guitar made its way to Hawaii from Portugal, but it is only in recent years that its popularity really grew.

Besides the growing list of Hawaii professionals who have expanded the ukulele’s capabilities through CDs and international performances, others like Sakuma have built the interest here on our Hawaii shores.

This year marks 39 years for the Ukulele Festival that began with an ukulele band of 50 students. This year, expect an 800-piece ukulele band and a dozen other performers, including some of Hawaii’s finest: Ohta San, Holunape, Natalie Ai Kamauu, Bill Tapia, Taimane, Kenneth Makuakane and Palolo.


Presented by Ukulele Festival Hawaii, this year’s Target 39th annual Ukulele Festival is happening Sunday, July 19, from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Kapiolani Park Bandstand. There will be food booths, souvenir T-shirts, ukulele displays, ukulele giveaways - and take advantage of the free shuttle service between Kapiolani Community College and Kapiolani Park.

What began as Roy Sakuma’s vision has since grown, thanks to the behind-the-scenes work of Kathy Sakuma and the sponsors and musicians who donate their time and talent each year. It’s this continued effort to celebrate and perpetuate the ukulele that also has allowed the festival to remain free of charge for the past 39 years.

“One of the beautiful things is all the major entertainers who perform who donate their time,” says Roy. “We tell them from the beginning that this is not about getting paid, because the dream was to put on an ukulele festival and to keep it free.

“And every year, when we have the ukulele festival, major manufacturers donate ukuleles. They really believe in what we’ve been doing for the past years and we really appreciate them.

“All our festivals are free, so we have to rely on donations to support it.”

For more on the festival, visit www.ukulelefestivalhawaii.org ...

Over at Hawaii Public Radio’s Atherton Studio, George Kuo, Martin Pahinui and Aaron Mahi will be mixing up their talents Saturday, July 18, at 7:30 p.m. for an evening of Hawaiian slack-key guitar and vocal melodies. Their performance will feature the intimacy of solo slack key guitar, followed by a backyard-style jam session by the talented trio. Tickets are $25 general, $20 HPR members and $15 students with ID. For reservations, call 955-8821.

Here’s a look back at why these three individuals are considered pillars of Hawaiian music.


Known for perpetuating traditional Hawaiian slack key-guitar styling, Kuo started playing slack key in the 1970s. He formed Kipapa Rush Band in 1980, then later joined Eddie Kamae and the Sons of Hawaii in 1986.

Pahinui is known for his incredible vocal range - from a low, deep bass to a rich, high and haunting falsetto. It is reminiscent of his legendary father, Gabby Pahinui. Pahinui played on his father’s recordings with his brothers Cyril, Bla and Philip, and master slack-key guitarists Leland “Atta” Isaacs and Sonny Chillingworth. He performed at nightclubs on Maui for many years before returning to Oahu to perform with the Peter Moon Band in the 1980s and ‘90s.

Mahi has a tremendous repertoire and knowledge of the hidden meanings of traditional Hawaiian songs. Upon graduating with distinction from the Hartt School of Music, he performed as a bassist. He later became the assistant conductor of the Honolulu Symphony, and was the conductor of the City and County of Honolulu’s Royal Hawaiian Band from 1980 to 2005 ...

As Michael Jackson tributes pop up around the world, Hawaii joins in on the action with Moonwalk: A Tribute to the King of Pop MJ beginning at 9:30 p.m. this Friday at Don Ho’s Island Grill. The 21-and over event will feature music and dance celebrating the icon. Admission is $10 at the door. Fans dressed up like Michael get in free.

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