Travel Story Ukulele’s legacy of love and laughter

Photo of Stephen Scourfield

As Hawaiian as hula and surfing, the ukulele is spreading culture and smiles around the globe.

Hawaiian shirts, hula dancers and surfers. They’re all ticked off the list. There is one thing left to find in Hawaii. I go in search of ukuleles and find them, by the thousand, at the annual Ukulele Festival Hawaii.

The festival dates way back before the uke became cool — back to when it was still thought of as a kids’ instrument, something George Formby and Tiny Tim played ... oh, and that Hawaiian cultural thing.

In Hawaii, Roy and Kathy Sakuma saw more than that and, in 1971, Roy organised the first annual Ukulele Festival.

 The free concert showcased the ukulele as a solo instrument of “sophistication and virtuosity”.

The festival developed year by year, and in 2004, Roy and Kathy established Ukulele Festival Hawaii. I stood in Kapiolani Park Bandstand in Waikiki, on the island of Oahu, at that festival, along with hundreds of other uke players, shaping four-string chords.

They established the reinvented festival as a non-profit organisation “to bring laughter, love and hope to everyone through the ukulele”.

And it has.

The world now sees the uke through their eyes — as an instrument to be strummed, not scorned.

This year’s annual Ukulele Festival — the 47th — is on Sunday, July 16, still in Kapiolani Park, with an 800-strong amateur uke orchestra expected to surround the bandstand of stars (see ukulelefestivalhawaii.org).

But with the ukulele renaissance in Hawaii and worldwide, Ukulele Festival Hawaii also now takes the uke festival to the islands of Hawaii (Waikoloa), Kauai and Maui.

This isn’t the only uke festival in Hawaii. The 17th annual Waikoloa Ukulel Festival is on Saturday, March 4, at Waikaloa Beach Resort, Big Island.

The 12th annual Maui Ukulel Festival is on Sunday, October 15, at Kahului, Maui.

I now have a very fine tenor ukulele made by luthier and good friend Scott Wise in Margaret River.

 He explains: “The body wood is from a small board of exquisite dark blackwood from the Ottways in Victoria. The head veneer and fingerboard are from a piece given to me by old man Pigram in the 1980s.” 

He is referring to the father of Stephen and Alan Pigram, and the rest of Broome band The Pigram Brothers.     

“To quote Stephen, ‘bandarangu, also known as medicine tree for its bark, which is boiled up. Wood was used to make clubs, very hard, knock you out’.” (See wiseukulele.com.)

But I still play my tiny Hawaiian soprano uke. Hawaiian makers have instruments on display at the festival and, back then in 2004, I couldn’t resist one made from the local timber koa.

Later, at my hotel, a porter notices the uke case under my arm. “My friends, they play a lot,” he explains. “We are keen surfers and they play ukulele. Always have.”

He offers a local secret. “The cool guys use old fishing line for strings — you can get different thicknesses, you see. They have experimented with all sorts of line to get good sound.” 

We chat a little more and then, as we part, he adds: “I am glad you have this to take away with you. It is part of our culture, so you take a part of us with you. Aloha.” He offers me a big, warm smile.

Ukulele Festival Hawaii has a mission statement: “To bring laughter, love and hope to children and adults throughout Hawaii and the world through the music of the ukulele.”

It seems to be working.

You don’t have to travel as far as Hawaii to enjoy ukulele festivals. With the instrument’s resurgence has come a wave of events.

New Zealand

Australia

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