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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, July 21, 2002

'Ukulele Festival a dream made real

By Linda Tagawa
Special to The Advertiser

If you've never seen Roy and Kathy Sakuma's annual 'Ukulele Festival at the Kapi'olani Park Bandstand, you have no idea what you've missed.

This year there will be nearly 1,000 fans, internationally known musicians, local celebrities and talented 'ukulele players from various countries all gathered together. And there is no admission fee for the nearly four-hour performance.

Last year there were more than 7,000 foot-stomping, hand-clapping spectators at this profoundly moving affair. I know, because I was there. And this festival is not about making money. It's about hundreds of people sharing their talent and love of the 'ukulele.

In return, they are recognized and appreciated by community folks like you and me.

This event did not happen overnight. It began more than 34 years ago when Roy Sakuma, the founder and organizer, worked as a groundskeeper, raking pine cones and rubbish and scrubbing the restrooms along the beach across from Kapi'olani Park.

"Every day, during lunch, I plopped on the beach in front of the old, empty bandstand, chomping on my homemade sandwich. I just sat there and dreamed. Day after day, I dreamed of creating an 'ukulele festival with no charge, to show people that the 'uke could be played as a solo instrument and not just background music.

"In those days, the 'uke was totally uncool," recalled Roy. "Most kids wanted to play the guitar, just like the Beatles, so I taught only a few students."

"One day during lunch, I shared my dream with someone and he said to me, 'Dreams can come true. You can make it happen.' Those few words inspired and propelled me into action.

Roy says city information specialist Moroni Medeiros helped guide him along, until at last, in 1971, the first 'Ukulele Festival was born.

"There were only about 25 students plucking along with the Hawai'i 'Ukulele International Club," Roy said, "but my dream came true!"

Telling me the story, Roy leaned back, crossed his arms and smiled.

Over the years, the number of participants has multiplied. Now more than 800 students are expected to participate. Through word of mouth, 'uke players from all over the world take part.

Guest performers come from Canada, Japan and California. Back-up players for the students will include Shawn Ishimoto, well-known solo guitar artist, and world-class drummer Noel Okimoto.

Also, bass player Lyle Ritz, one of the top studio musicians in the country, who has backed up celebrities such as Linda Ronstadt, Frank Sinatra and Tina Turner, and has recorded songs such as "Unchained Melody" and "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," will be there to accompany the children.

Local celebrities including Ohta-san, Ernie Cruz, Jr., Keoki Kahumoku and Herb Ohta Jr. will make special appearances: "Not to shine in the limelight, but to back up, inspire and support the kids," Roy says.

Besides being a spectacular concert, this show draws families together, like the Williams clan of 'Ewa Beach.

"It's a big deal for us!" said Kathleen Williams, mom of Karly, who plays the 'ukulele. "My husband leaves to reserve a spot at the park at 3:30 a.m. ... I pack the musubi and pick up Grandma. It's an all-day affair with our nieces, nephews, cousins, uncles, aunties and friends. ...

"Karly often asks, 'Ma, can you play with me?'" Kathleen Williams told me. "And when it gets late, she'll flash her big brown eyes and plead, 'Just one more song, Ma, pleeease?'"

When Grandma Shida enrolled Nicole in 'ukulele lessons in the first grade, Nicole was a shy youngster. Today she is one of the top teen players in the studio. Every weekend when Grandma takes her to 'uke class, Niki looks forward to her session

Her Grandpa, a skilled 'uke player himself, tells Niki, "I can't play like you anymore." Her 'uke skills far surpass his.

I noticed Roy Sakuma's name was not included in the bold title of the poster for the event. "Why?" I asked. And Roy replied modestly, "It's not about me. It's all about the kids and the festival."

Our entire state benefits from Roy and Kathy's efforts in this humongous concert.

This is an event where the true spirit of aloha fills the air and the meaning of O'ahu, "the gathering place," flows naturally, spreading the love of the 'ukulele.

Roy's dream has come true many times over.

The 32nd Annual 'Ukulele Festival begins at 10 a.m. July 28 in Kapi'olani Park. Admission is free. Linda Tagawa is a longtime Advertiser contributor.