Roy And Kathy Sakuma

Chris Fleck photo

Ukulele aficionado Roy Sakuma was once asked during a media interview if he thought the ukulele could become an international sensation. His emphatic answer was yes, and he was absolutely correct.

An instrument that slowly gained popularity on the sugar cane plantations of Hawaii, its soothing strums helping plantation workers and their families relax after long days, is now reaching all corners of the globe. There are ukulele festivals held annually on the Mainland and in Japan, Canada, Thailand, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain.

“There is an ukulele explosion happening all over the world – it is happening and it is just continuing, too. Roy’s dream was to show everyone that ukulele could be played like other instruments, and it would make it with its virtuosity,” says ukulele instructor and Sakuma’s wife, Kathy.

In 1971 with the revolution of rock ‘n’ roll peaking drastically, ukuleles were being set aside, collecting dust in people’s garages and closets as the guitar was the main attraction. That also was the year Sakuma organized the first Ukulele Festival, a tradition that has continued for more than 40 years. Now a nonprofit organization, Ukulele Festival Hawaii’s mission is to continue to bring laughter, hope and love to children and adults though ukulele music.

“The festival has become an international event. It is important to us that it remains free. What makes us different from other ukulele festivals around the world is that we have so many children involved. Our goal is to see more children all over the world pick up the ukulele as they do in Hawaii,” says Sakuma, who was featured with Kathy on MidWeek‘s cover July 23, 2008. “This is the birthplace of ukulele, and the world is discovering what we’ve always known about the ukulele for so long.”

It is outstanding how broad of a musical audience the ukulele and its festival attracts. This year’s Ukulele Festival Hawaii – July 22 from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Kapiolani Park Bandstand – features music icon James Ingram, who wrote hits such as Just Once, Somewhere Out There and Baby, Come To Me. Now great friends, Sakuma and Ingram incidentally met in 1994 while exercising on the track at UH-Manoa, when Sakuma had no idea who Ingram was. Other notable appearances will be by his mentor and teacher, Ohta-San, as well as Manoa DNA, Nick Acosta and Derick Sebastian.

Knowing how entertaining ukulele music can be, the Sakumas also are in tune to ukulele’s powers of joy and healing, which they make an effort to pass along to their students.

“Ukulele is like a baby – not only do you hold it like a baby, when you do you also can feel and embrace instant joy,” says Kathy. “That is how it is, it gives you pure joy.”