Self-proclaimed rascalBy John Berger
Roy Sakuma managed to hone
that energy and built
an ukulele empire
Special to the Star-Bulletin
ROY Sakuma is living proof that bad students sometimes become great teachers. Sakuma has been Hawaii's most prominent ukulele instructor and proponent of the instrument for more than 25 years. Thousands have passed through his classes and some have gone on to become professional musicians and teachers. Sakuma is also the producer of the 30th Annual 'Ukulele Festival at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand each summer. With such accomplishments on his resume, it's difficult to believe he was kicked out of Roosevelt High School at 14.
"The principal said one of us had to go and it wasn't him," Sakuma says of the abrupt end of his formal education. He credits the ukulele, a song and two inspirational mentors with helping him turn his life around.
"I was very uncomfortable (in school) even in kindergarten. Through the ukulele I found that I could totally focus on the instrument (and) trying to learn it, and that gave me a lot of comfort.
"I found out that if I was frustrated or not in a good mood that just picking it up changed the whole complexion of how I was feeling. It really brought a lot of joy into my life."
It wasn't that Sakuma had natural talent. For much of his youth he was one of those guys who seemed to lack any musical ability.
"There were five guys on my street a little older than me who were really talented ukulele players and from time to time I really wanted to learn, but I was hopeless.
"My sister reminded me recently that she would give me a stick and have me hit a can to keep the beat and I couldn't even do that. When I was 15 I was really trying to learn and even then I was terrible."
A popular song inspired him to keep trying. The song was Herb "Ohta-san" Ohta's "Sushi," and when Sakuma learned that Ohta was giving lessons, he sought him out and became an avid student.
"Learning from him opened a whole new world for me. I can remember putting in eight to 10, maybe 12 hours a day, practicing the ukulele so I could show my teacher that I was really learning.
"For all those months he never said 'That was good' and I think he was trying to motivate me to push harder."
Ohta became Sakuma's mentor and later hired him as an instructor for his school. Sakuma enjoyed teaching and took on more and more students. He ran Ohta's studio for many years while Ohta was on tour. Ohta eventually encouraged him to open his own school in the same building.
"I did it all with his blessing," Sakuma says. "To this day, I dread to think where I would be without Ohta-san. I think two things came out of learning from him. No. 1 is that I leaned to play the ukulele well, but I think more importantly, he also disciplined me. His ability to put me in the right direction was the turning point in my life."
Teaching was still a part-time job for Sakuma when he turned 18 and his parents wanted him to find secure full-time employment. He eventually applied for a civil service job as a grounds keeper with the Department of Parks & Recreation. He barely passed the physical and spent more than a year cleaning Kapiolani Park restrooms.
One day, he mentioned during a lunch break that he dreamed of presenting an ukulele festival in the park. A supervisor encouraged him to pursue the idea. Sakuma's search for information brought him another friend and mentor in Moroni Medeiros at City Hall.
"He actually got excited and said he would help me. Through Moroni's help, the Hawaii International 'Ukulele Club and the City & County of Honolulu, we sponsored the first ukulele festival."
Medeiros remained a friend and mentor until he died in 1984. One of the things Sakuma remembers most vividly is how Medeiros treated people.
"Many well-known people would walk into his office to say hello and Moroni would greet them with a big smile or a hug or a great aloha. It was like he knew these people forever (but) what impressed the heck out of me is that when someone walked in to ask for directions or to look for the restroom he would greet them with that same aloha.
"I learned a lot from him -- not that I was mistreating people -- but the way that he treated people showed me what a great man he was."
Sakuma resigned after 10 years as a city employee. His studio had become a full-time commitment and he was also working with a quartet of young ukulele virtuosos he dubbed the Termites. He later organized another ukulele band ESP (Extra Strumming Power).
"Back when I started teaching most people weren't really interested (in ukulele) because the guitar had made such an impact. What I was trying to demonstrate was that this instrument could still play songs like the Beatles and the Beach Boys as a lead instrument. The ukulele has come a long way since then."
So has Sakuma, who also has made a name for himself as a record producer working with the Ka'au Crater Boys, Palolo, Joy, Troy Fernandez, Lyle Ritz and the Outtakes.
Daniel Ho and Jake Shimabukuro are among the former students who will be performing Sunday. Danny Kaleikini will be the master of ceremonies and James Ingram will be there as a special guest, but Sakuma says the kids in his 300-member ukulele band are the real stars of the show.
"One of the reasons I started the festival was to give the children the opportunity to perform. All the entertainers who come out and play are supporting the kids."
He adds that his experiences as a marginal student back in the bad old days help him connect with similar kids today.
"When I think of all the years that I was a rascal, it really helped me when I started teaching kids because if I saw the same rascalness or an attitude problem I could relate to it and help them through it."
What: 30th Annual Kapiolani Park 'Ukulele Festival, with Moe Keale, Melveen Leed, Jake Shimabukuro, Ka'au Crater Boys, Lyle Ritz, Imua, Daniel Ho, Uji Igarashi, the Langley 'Ukulele Ensemble, the Nihon 'Ukulele Association, the Garza Brothers and the Nagoya 'Ukulele Club
When: 10 a.m. Sunday
Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
Click for online
calendars and events.