Friday, July 23, 2004

Festival emcee Danny Kaleikini, center, poses with last year's "orchestra."

Ukulele fest strums along

It began as the dream of a high school dropout. And now Roy Sakuma's annual ukulele festival has surpassed in longevity similar events of the past. The Starbucks 34th Annual Ukulele Festival will feature some of Hawaii's top virtuosos, plus other talented musicians and aficionados from the mainland, Canada and Japan.

Starbucks 34th Annual Ukulele Festival

Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand

When: 10 a.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

Info: 732-3739 or

The Legend Continues Concert Series
featuring the Langley Ukulele Ensemble

Where: Sheraton Waikiki Hotel

When: 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, and Monday through July 30

Admission: Free

Call: 931-8383

Those topping the bill this Sunday will be Troy Fernandez, Canadian virtuoso James Hill, Japan's Yuji Igarashi, the Keale Ohana and Daniel Ho.

Danny Kaleikini, who made his debut as festival emcee back in 1973, will be back, along with recurring guest James Ingram, who will be there to sing "Come and Join Us," the song he and Sakuma wrote and recorded as the festival's theme song.

"What makes it so special is that he wrote the song for Hawaii. And he didn't just write the song with me, but when (my wife Kathy and I) got home one day, there was this CD on our doorstep mailed to us from James Ingram. He arranged it and sang it! I never thought he was going to sing it (for the recording). I thought that's really neat," Sakuma said during a break in rehearsals earlier this week.

Sakuma admits that he didn't initially recognize Ingram when he first met him by accident at the University of Hawaii at Manoa track field early in 1993. Even after introducing himself, Sakuma said still didn't have any idea who he was, but by the end of the conversation, he had invited the visitor and his family to join him on a dinner cruise the next day.

The popular singer was in town to perform at the Pro Bowl, and it wasn't until Sakuma was watching the game on TV that afternoon that he realized who he'd been talking to.

"I think my wife said something like, 'You stupid head, you don't know who James Ingram is?' and then she showed me all the CDs that she had of him. When I called him the next morning, he said, 'Roy, I'd have to be arrogant if I think everybody knows who I am,' and that's how it all started."

Ingram appeared at the festival as a special guest in 1994, singing "Somewhere Out There" as Sakuma's students strummed their ukuleles. He would return for the 1997 and 2000 festivals.

It was during Ingram's last visit here, for a performance with the Honolulu Symphony in 2003, that he got together with Sakuma and roughed out "Come and Join Us." About three months later, there was the CD on the Sakuma doorstep.

The CD single is now on sale, and Ingram's rendition of it will certainly be a highlight of the festival on Sunday. He plans to reprise his 1986 hit "Somewhere Out There" with local singer Rocky Brown taking Linda Ronstadt's original duet role.

Other festival-related events began yesterday afternoon at the Sheraton Waikiki. Performances at the Sheraton continue at 4:30 p.m. today and tomorrow, with Ingram on the bill tomorrow.

The Langley Ukulele Ensemble opens its own series of free performances at the Sheraton tomorrow as well.

As for the main event, it's gotten bigger in number, too. Where Sakuma once presented a 300-member ukulele "orchestra," this year his students will be performing 800-strong -- and that's just the kids and teenagers.

"There'll be about 100 adults, too, so there'll be about 900 people in all who will be performing. We're getting a lot of senior citizens (as students) and people just want to relax and have fun. They're having a ball with us, and it's good to see all these adults taking time off and enjoying their lessons," Sakuma says.

Roy Sakuma's young ukulele students show off what they've learned.

SAKUMA ADMITS that his love for the ukulele grew out of his being "very uncomfortable" in school during his small kid time. Sakuma says he had no natural talent whatsoever for the instrument, but persisted until he was good enough that Herb "Ohta-san" Ohta agreed to take him on as a student.

By that time, however, Sakuma had been kicked out of Roosevelt High School ("The principal said one of us had to go and it wasn't him" is how he describes the end of his formal education), and although Ohta-san eventually hired him as an instructor, his parents eventually insisted that he find a secure full-time job.

The dropout barely passed the physical requirements for a civil service job as a groundskeeper with the Department of Parks & Recreation, but got the job. He spent more than a year cleaning the public restrooms in Kapiolani Park.

And then one fateful day, Sakuma mentioned to a supervisor that he dreamed of presenting a free ukulele festival in the park. The supervisor encouraged him to pursue the dream, and the City & County of Honolulu and the Hawaii International Ukulele Club backed Sakuma in presenting his first festival in 1971.

"It just started in the park, having lunch, looking at the bandstand, and having this dream of putting on an ukulele festival. The supervisor told me 'Dreams come true,' and that's what kick-started me. I started asking a lot of questions after work until I got the answers I needed to eventually put on the festival."

Sakuma remained a city employee for several more years before the success of his ukulele studios provided him with the income necessary for him to give up his job and devote all his time to ukulele-related activities.

Since then, he has worked with a series of uke-strumming groups and soloists, such as the Termites, ESP (Extra Strumming Power), the Ka'au Crater Boys, Palolo and Joy.

"We've seen the ukulele boom from the early 1990s and it's kind of tapered off, but it hasn't dropped per se. The interest is still really high, and it's catching on throughout the world. ... It just shows you that there's more and more interest in the ukulele.

"It's interesting to see how all these youngsters have grown as musicians, but I also appreciate the ones that you don't hear about -- the ones who become the (student) band directors at their high schools, or they make it into the select jazz band. I'm just as proud of all those kids, and a lot of them stayed with us all the way through high school.

"Some of these kids eventually come on and join us as instructors because they love the ukulele so much. It's continuing the trend of perpetuating the music of Hawaii and the ukulele."

A WHO'S WHO of ukulele talent has been featured over the years, both from the islands and beyond.

In particular, Peter Luongo's Langley Ukulele Ensemble has represented Canada well at the festival, and Yuji Igarashi is a prime exponent of Japan's own long-standing Hawaiian music scene. (Kaoru Kohonoike & KK Hawaiian Groove will also be representing Japan on Sunday.) And appearing as a last-minute addition to the program this year will be the Klesk Brothers from Minnesota, who auditioned for Sakuma by phone after he heard they were planning to come out here simply to check out the festival.

The annual ukulele festival makes it possible for fans to meet artists they may only know through their recordings. Jake Shimabukuro signed autographs for over an hour after he played the festival in 2001. Sakuma says Ingram has promised to stay as long as it takes to autograph copies of the new CD single.

Sales will help fund next year's festival.

"As the events get bigger, you don't see the hidden costs behind the scenes," Sakuma says. "We're really, really happy that we've been able to keep it free and we hope to do it for 50 years, but it's amazing that the interest is still there. We have people who plan their vacations around when the ukulele festival is going to be, and a lot of the proceeds from the CD are going to benefit the Ukulele Festival Hawaii, which is our new non-profit organization.

"Even when I left (the City & County), my wife and I made a promise that we wanted to keep the event free for as long as we possibly can. Thanks to the support from the community and businesses, we can, and I hope we can do it for 50 years."

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