Find a group of young people, and
you'll find someone playing...


Stories by John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

Troy Fernandez is generally credited with starting the current revival
in the popularity of the ukulele.
By Dean Sensui, Star-Bulletin

WHEN Troy Fernandez was growing up in Palolo Valley, he and his friends Nathan Nahinu and Chino Montero thought Peter Moon was the man.

Now, Fernandez is the man.

For the young people who have recently taken ukulele in hand, the fast-fingered Fernandez is one of their inspirations.

And the ukulele, the little guitar-like instrument that originated in Portugal, has become as popular as it has ever been - maybe more so.

Find a group of local teen-agers hanging out and you're likely to find at least one ukulele. And like the old days way back when, it's not uncommon to see kids playing ukulele as they stroll down the street or make their way between classes at school.

For Matthew Chong, playing the ukulele "makes me feel happy and very relaxed, and no matter how old you get you can always play."

"It relieves stress," Jimmy Lee says. "You start to play and it relaxes you. You just want to keep playing. And it's fun to learn. Every time I pick it up I want to learn something new. It's always challenging."

Derek Suzukawa, Sheila Izuka, Jimmy Lee and Matthew Chong play
ukulele and hang out during a break at Kaimuki High.

Photo by Craig Kojima, Star-Bulletin

Kaimuki High School senior Derek Suzukawa, Lee and Chong were among the many students who took in a special ukulele class last fall taught by Kaimuki alumnus Jake Shimabukuro.

Suzukawa, who has been playing for "about a year and half," enjoys the informal sharing of knowledge that goes on between friends.

Lee says though he liked the class, he picked up most of what he knows the old-fashioned way.

"I brought my real junk ukulele to school and then I watched everybody play and picked up (how they did it) until now I play differently from everybody else. I used to bring it every day my freshman, sophomore and junior year. You can learn a lot from everybody, and it's real fun."

Their classmate, Sheila Izuka, was introduced to the ukulele from family and friends.

"My cousin plays, and my sister's boyfriend ... used to bring his ukulele over. My boyfriend and his family play, so I used to go over there and just watch. My boyfriend used to teach me and then I started taking the ukulele class."

Roy Sakuma is Hawaii's most visible professional ukulele teacher and a long-time promoter of the instrument. He says that more kids are sticking with the instrument these days, and more teens are coming in for lessons.

"It used to be the parents that wanted their kids to take ukulele lessons. It was something educational, extracurricular, and a lot cheaper than buying a piano, but by the time the kids were 12 or 13 they didn't want to play any more," he says.

Sakuma has been involved with the ukulele since his childhood when he was "doggedly determined" to play as well as some of the kids in the neighborhood. He eventually mastered the instrument and became an instructor in the studio of his mentor, Herb "Ohta-san" Ohta, then quit a secure job with the city to become a full-time instructor.

Roy Sakuma.

That was more than 20 years ago. If it involves ukulele, Sakuma is probably involved with it. He produces a free ukulele festival for the city each summer in Kapiolani Park. He's also produced and released albums by Ohta-san, Lyle Ritz, the Ka'au Crater Boys and Palolo. Besides sharing a record label, the latter two acts also share the services of Fernandez, the ukulele virtuoso credited as the immediate inspiration for the next generation of aspiring masters of the instrument.

"He's the guy," KRTR morning man Kimo Kahoano says emphatically. "The kids heard Troy's unique style and that's what made it happen. Guys who also made an impact are Kelly DeLima and Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Israel uses it more as a rhythm instrument, but Kelly picks all the time. He's like the lead guitar of Kapena except they don't have a lead guitar; they have a lead ukulele. And then there's Troy. He's unique."

Ricardo Trimillos, ethnomusicologist at the University of Hawaii, agrees.

"Troy is a very virtuosic player and an extremely fine musician with a very good ear. He does what I call 'tasty stuff.' "

Trimillos isn't really sure what makes Fernandez's sound different. "He's applying a lot of banjo-picking and guitar-picking techniques to this four-stringed instrument and so part of the fascination is that here is this instrument, with only four strings, but it can do everything that a guitar or a banjo can."

He likens Fernandez's technical skills to those of Jesse Kalima and Ohta-san, but with more of a rock/country influence than jazz.

"Troy's got a better amplification system and what he can feed into his mix gives it a much more contemporary hard-edged sound when he plays," Trimillos said.

He also compares Fernandez with hapa-haole composer Andy Cummings but the sound "was not as driving as what these guys are doing today."

"There's also a different feeling for rhythm that the younger guys have which is not the same as cha-lang-alang or the earlier styles. It's sort of in your face and upbeat and very virtuosic."

Fernandez modestly attributes much of his distinctive sound to using fake acrylic fingernails.

"Difficult chords take finger strength, but I think the sound is the nails," he said.

Fernandez, 33, has been playing the ukulele since he was in elementary school.

He says it was his friend, Chino Montero, who got him started picking when they were hanging out and playing with Nathan Nahinu as teens in Palolo valley.

You start to play and it relaxes you. You just want to keep playing. And it's fun to learn. Every time
I pick it up I want to learn something new.
It's always challenging.

Jimmy Lee

"If it wasn't for those two guys I don't know if I'd be playing music. When I was starting to play (for fun) it was because of those two guys. In intermediate we used to always carry our ukes around. Chino was the more advanced out of the three of us and he used to teach us a lot. Eighth grade was when we started to learn three-part harmony. I used to strum and Chino was the one doing all the solos, but he got me thinking. That and listening to Peter Moon tapes."

Last fall, the childhood friends released their first album as the group Palolo, playing the music they loved as youngsters with the strength of their adult skills. And Fernandez is currently wrapping up a new Ka'au Crater Boys album with Ernie Cruz Jr.

Kaimuki senior Chong is among the young musicians who mention Fernandez as an inspiration. He began playing ukulele in elementary school. His studies included lessons from Sakuma as well music classes in school. These days he says he's pretty much learning on his own and "playing for fun."

If everything works out he'll be attending University of Southern California or Colorado State - and taking at least one ukulele with him.

Taking an uke to college on the mainland is something of a island tradition.

In a more formal context, interisland interest in ukulele has united students from Oahu's Le Jardin Academy with kids at Hawaii Preparatory Academy and Kealakehe Intermediate on the Big Island. More than 100 students from the three schools participated in the 3rd Annual Ukulele Festival in Waimea last month. Kealakehe's Gloria Juan is festival coordinator with assistance from Bev Allen at Le Jardin and HPA's Georgia Polak.

"The ukulele is a wonderful tool to bring (kids from) different schools together," Polak says.

"I start with third graders because they have enough dexterity in their fingers, and that's another real plus because they can feel success early on and build confidence. We teach them how to read music through the ukulele and that carries over to other instruments. It can become a lifetime friend."

The Related Story:

Ukulele Respect

New Uke

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