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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, March 6, 2005

'Ukuleles for the masses

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

It's strange that children in Canada have easier access to 'ukuleles than keiki in Hawai'i, where the instrument was invented, said Richard Kimura, president of the 'Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i.

Richard Kimura, president of the 'Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i, displays a few of his handmade 'ukuleles in his basement workshop.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

"In Canada, it's mandatory in the third or fourth grade for all the kids to play 'ukulele," Kimura said. "We would like to have more of the kids in Hawai'i have a chance to have a 'ukulele. Especially the kids that don't have the income to afford one."

To make that happen, the guild started its "Ukes for Kids" project last year and will host a benefit concert Saturday at McKinley High School to buy 100 'ukuleles for students across the state. The project is dedicated to promoting Hawai'i's celebrated "jumping flea," and to perpetuate its musical contribution to the Islands.

Kimura, who took a 'ukulele class in 1999 at McKinley, has made more than a dozen 'ukuleles in his basement workshop since he retired two years ago.

Richard Kimura works on the tone bars of one of the 'ukuleles he is making. Kimura has built more than a dozen instruments in his basement workshop since he retired two years ago.

Andrew Shimabuku • The Honolulu Advertiser

The guild began in the early '90s as a group of 'ukulele builders sharing a common interest and desire to exchange information, techniques and experiences. It has about 350 members, some as far away as Japan.

Member Norman Takeya said he went to an 'ukulele festival in Santa Cruz, Calif., last April where he heard about a Ukes for Kids program there.

"They had gotten the idea from the 'Ukulele Hall of Fame, which is located in Rhode Island," Takeya said. "I thought ... we should be doing that."

Takeya said he talked to the Santa Cruz 'ukulele club, and it agreed to let Hawai'i copy its formula, which works with the Big Brothers Big Sisters organization to distribute the instruments to children.

At its annual 'Ukulele Exhibition and Conference in November, the guild donated its first 125 'ukuleles to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Honolulu.

Rosemarie Uyehara, program services director for Big Brothers Big Sisters, said the instruments are given to children through their mentors, and volunteers teach the students play them.

"Learning a new skill is really special for them," Uyehara said. "It builds their self-esteem, and they learn discipline. The kids really need to have some success in their lives, and when they learn to play the 'ukulele, it is really special for them."

Concert details

What: Ukes for Kids Concert

Featuring: Britni Paiva, Herb Ohta Jr. and Walt Keale

Where: McKinley High School, Hirata Hall

When: 6:30 to 8:30 a.m. Saturday

Tickets: $10 at the door; may be purchased at www.ukuleleguild.org.

Sponsors: KoAloha Ukulele and the 'Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i

Extra: CD sales and autographs will be available after the show.

In 1879, Portuguese immigrants brought a small four-stringed instrument known as the braguinha to Hawai'i. Hawaiians soon created their own version, which they dubbed the 'ukulele — which translates to "jumping flea" in Hawaiian.

Takeya said some of this batch of 'ukuleles will be given to students on Moloka'i and the Big Island, and the guild is accepting applications from anyone whose children could use them.

"Children who are involved in music tend to do better in school," Takeya said. "If schools want, they can write a letter describing their need."

To make a donation or to request 'ukuleles, write to the 'Ukulele Guild of Hawai'i, P.O. Box 894426, Mililani, HI 96789, or see www.ukuleleguild.org.

For information, call 440-4646.

Reach James Gonser at 535-2431 or jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com.