Anyone who believes that "those who can't do, teach," should be in the audience at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand on Sunday when Joy is playing at Roy Sakuma's 31st Annual Ukulele Festival.
Four ukulele instructors
perform as well as teach
By John Berger
Joy is a group of four young women who happen to be ukulele instructors. Lili Anama, Nelly Toyama, Jeana Shimabuku and Candyce Narimatsu also happen to be recording artists with two albums and thousands of tour miles to their credit.
"We get e-mails from people in Japan on the West Coast who are kind of in awe that 'girls' can play in a group like this. They'll hear a Troy Fernandez song with all of his ad libs, and they'll actually be surprised that we can do them," Toyama said.
Narimatsu and Sakuma were sitting with her earlier this week in Sakuma's Aiea studio. The three took turns fielding questions about the group and Sakuma's free Sunday festival. The presence of two Japanese uke players and the Langley Ukulele Ensemble from Canada attests to the international appeal of the instrument. Joy will also be sharing the stage with a roster of island uke masters including Lyle Ritz, Herb Ohta and Jake Shimabukuro.
The women of Joy started off on the uke just like tens of thousands of other local kids do: as students in one of Sakuma's four studios (the others are in Kaimuki, Kaneohe and Mililani). Toyama began playing when she was "5 or 6." Narimatsu is definite about having started at 6.
Sakuma recalls she was a prodigy.
"Candyce was a student of my wife, Kathy, and she amazed both of us because she learned so fast. As young as she was, she would come back for every lesson fully prepared, and she could master a very difficult song in a blur. You could tell she really practiced, and she'd get impatient with other students when they didn't. Eventually, we developed her into a Super Keiki, and she became the lead picker."
Toyama also became a member of the Super Keikis. That's where their story takes an atypical twist. Many kids lose interest in uke lessons when they hit their teens, and sports or other school activities come into the picture. Others start to feel out of place in a music program dominated by elementary school kids. Sakuma says some feel awkward about being a teenage Super Keiki. Toyama and Narimatsu were different.
"They didn't leave. Nelly was like 16 years old or something, but she was still a Super Keiki and had no inhibition about being 16 and still playing with younger kids. Eventually, my wife said we should form a group and let them form their own identity."
Toyama recalls a visit to Japan as one of the turning points.
"I remember the Super Keikis going to Japan, and the four of us were on the bus singing and doing our harmonies and everything," she said.
Toyama, who also plays guitar, has become the spokeswoman for Joy when they perform. Narimatsu is lead picker.
"After we recorded our first album and started becoming more serious as a group, it just sprang from there," Narimatsu said.
By the time Joy was born, Toyama and Narimatsu were already teaching. Toyama, who is 24 but could easily pass for a high school student, has been teaching for 10 years. Narimatsu, 21, has been teaching for seven years, continuing her duties part time while attending Leeward Community College; she plans to continue her education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Toyama, a UH graduate in communications, teaches for Sakuma "a little under full time." She taught art and music at Nimitz Elementary last year and is awaiting "the word" on whether she'll be returning.
Sakuma is proud of both of them.
"They started (teaching) when they were 14, and even then they had the concept of how to teach. I think because they were always with younger kids, they knew how to talk and motivate. Now they are very good instructors. The way I can tell is when I hear them teaching. When you hear the student playing, you can tell by the way they're playing that the teacher is doing a good job."
Featuring Danny Kaleikini, Ohta-san, Moe Keale, Ka'au Crater Boys, Keoki Kahumoku & Herb Ohta Jr., Lyle Ritz, Joy, Jake Shimabukuro, the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, Yuji Igarashi, Yasuhiko Ariga, and Roy Sakuma's 700-piece Ukulele Band.
31st Annual Ukulele Festival
When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday
Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
Click for online
calendars and events.