One of the highlights of the annual Ukulele Festival is the orchestra made up of hundreds of kids.

‘The greatest
sound in
the world’

Roy Sakuma can speak endlessly of the magical qualities of the ukulele. He rhapsodizes not only of the charming, singular sound it produces, but the friendships it has provided him over the years. He can tell you of the uke-strumming gentleman he encountered at a cafe in Spain and the chance meeting with Grammy Award-winning singer James Ingram, which led to the famed crooner's appearance at the 2000 Ukulele Festival.

Starbucks 33rd Annual Ukulele Festival

Where: Kapiolani Park Bandstand

When: 9:30 a.m. Sunday

Admission: Free

Call: 732-3739

The festival, now in its 33rd year, is by far the largest of its kind in the world, boasting crowds of several thousands and an ukulele orchestra of more than 800 children. Additional attractions this year include food stands, free frappuccino samples and a CD booth where attendees can get autographed compact discs of the day's performers.

Among Sunday's entertainers are Ledward Kaapana, Ernie Cruz Jr., Troy Fernandez and Frank De Lima, who will be joined by ukulele enthusiasts from Oahu, the neighbor islands, California, and even Japan, where interest in Hawaiian melodies has waned little over the decades.

"Hawaiian music was always popular in Japan, all the way back to the 1940s," attests Sakuma. "For instance, there are over a thousand hula halau in Japan, and in the last 15 years, ukulele studios have been popping up in Japan and there are a lot of people -- even teenagers and college students -- who have picked up the ukulele. There has been a tremendous increase in popularity of the ukulele in Japan."

Sakuma credits the continuing interest in the instrument overseas on the efforts of such homegrown icons as Herb "Ohta-San" Ohta and his son Herb Jr., and Jake Shimabukuro, whose goodwill excursions to Japan have helped perpetuate the ukulele's popularity there.

Just as important as introducing new crowds to the uke through performance is the passing on of its tradition to successive generations.

Sakuma, whose renowned work as an instructor has made him something of a local legend, remembers his start as an assistant teacher at Ohta-San's studio more than three decades ago.

"My dream was to become an entertainer when I was young, but when I started teaching, there was no doubt that I felt I was headed in that direction," reveals the venerable ukulele master.

Like Sakuma, Palolo Valley-raised California resident Hiram Bell -- among Sunday's slate of entertainers -- is also an instructor in ukulele. Bell, who teaches in the San Francisco area, says he became serious about the ukulele 10 years ago, and, in 2000, asked Sakuma through e-mail if he could join the famous festival as a performer. When a position opened up at last year's concert, Bell happily made the trek over the Pacific to join the show.

For Sunday's show, he will be accompanied by a student of his -- 8-year-old Kathryn Miyahira. They will attempt a duet of a baroque piece by Johann Sebastian Bach on ukulele and guitar. Interest in the ukulele, he says, is alive and well on the mainland.

"There's an old, Tin Pan Alley kind of music, like Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim did, that half of them want to learn to play," he says. "The other half have island ties and want to get back to their roots through either hula or the ukulele."

The Ukulele Festival has become such an institution over the decades that a list of former ukulele orchestra members would read like a who's who in local entertainment.

"What's neat is a lot of these kids will grow to be great musicians in the future," says Sakuma, naming several ukulele festival alumni, including Shimabukuro, Daniel Ho, Kapena's Kelly Boy DeLima and Imua Garza of the Opihi Pickers. "The list goes on and on. So many of these youngsters will become the heart and soul of the Hawaii music industry.

"If you've never experienced the Ukulele Festival, you've got to hear what hundreds of ukuleles playing together sounds like," he said. "That's the greatest sound in the world."

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