Discover Hawaii’s Ukulele Culture

Roy Sakuma in his Ukulele Studio

Roy Sakuma in his ukulele studio

Hawaii is the birthplace of the ukulele and there are so many places where you can discover the passion and the precision behind these islands’ love affair with the little stringed instrument that could!

It is Thursday afternoon at Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios in suburban Kaneohe, about 30 minutes and a million miles away from Waikiki’s tourist strip. I feel a palpable Hawaiian spirit upon entering the room jammed with kids, mums and dads, retirees and young ukulele instructors. A crazy quilt of photos and festival posters covers the walls. At the centre of it all is Roy himself, a smiling grey-haired man whose name has become synonymous with the Hawaiian ukulele.

Ukulele Festival Hawaii

This July, Roy Sakuma’s 44th Ukulele Festival Hawaii (Youtube) will take place, like it always has, at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand in Waikiki. It is the oldest and largest uke festival on the planet. Over the years, it has featured ukulele bands from around the world and a home-grown ukulele orchestra of over ukulele-roy-2800 students, mostly children, as well as renowned guest soloists like Jake Shimabukuro whose originality and technical proficiency has earned him comparisons with Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis (

Thousands come to listen.

Back in 1971 when Sakuma was a grounds keeper for the City of Honolulu and few people were interested in the ukulele, he organised the first festival to showcase how it could be played as a solo instrument of sophistication and virtuosity. From these humble beginnings, there is now a worldwide fascination with the four-stringed little instrument that could. Today, there are ukulele festivals in California, New York, Japan, London, Thailand, Taiwan, Vancouver, Paris, Melbourne, Cairns and Newcastle, to name just a few.

What is it about the ukulele that makes people from a wide variety of cultures so happy?

Sakuma thinks it has something to do with the fact that “You hold it like a baby, close to your heart and you play it for the joy of playing, not for perfection”. He adds, “When people touch a ukulele for the first time, its charm and simplicity capture their imagination. Within minutes they’re in love.”

Ukulele Festival Hawaii posters

Ukulele Festival Hawaii posters

Canadian Tony Coleman, director of the hugely popular ukulele documentary The Mighty Uke, (YouTube), considers it a people’s instrument, which somehow embodies both innocence and a wild and crazy quality.

It is also an instrument born of improvisation and voyages across the seas.

How it all got started 

The ukulele started life as a Portuguese brauinha, or mini guitar. In 1879 the first Portuguese, from the island of Madeira, arrived in Hawaii to work in the sugar cane plantations.  Among them were musicians who played these diminutive instruments. They delighted the Hawaiians, who had never before heard melodies played on strings, since their musical heritage was based on dance, chanting and drumming. Soon afterwards, Manuel Nunes opened Hawaii’s first ukulele shop. King Kalakaua was a huge fan.

At the 1915 San Francisco International Exposition, ukulele maker Johan Kumalae launched a fad for Hawaiian music across the States and the portable, inexpensive ukulele became an icon of the Jazz Age. After that, everyone from Elvis Presley to George Harrison embraced it.

Kamaka Ukulele: Hawaii’s oldest ukulele manufacturer

Fred Kamaka at Kamaka Ukuleles

Fred Kamaka at Kamaka Ukuleles

I learn all about this at Kamaka Ukulele, trailblazers in the uke biz since 1916 and Hawaii’s oldest continuously operating ukulele manufacturer. Second-generation, eighty-nine year-old tour guide, Fred Kamaka, tells their story at the tiny factory now surrounded by Honolulu’s civic buildings. His musician dad, Sam Kamaka, was a protege of Kumalae and travelled the world in search of big musical sounds, which he translated into the designs of his ukuleles.

Fast forward 97 years and now Fred’s sons and nephews have computerized the business but every step of the process still involves hand-crafting and meticulous attention to detail. Kamaka makes just 4000 instruments a year. Starting price is $845 for Hawaiian koa wood ukuleles with mahogany necks.

“We had to stop advertising 20 years ago because we couldn’t keep up with demand,” Fred laughs.

On my tour are several Japanese aficionados, Kamaka first exporting to Japan in the 1930s. “We often have Japanese pilgrims come to have their vintage ukuleles signed by a Kamaka,” says Fred. These days, Hawaiian and Japanese uke players are rock stars in Tokyo…in Taiwan and Thailand, too, for that matter.

Where to hear ukulele music

Pukulele-playIt’s time to hear how the professionals play. I settle in with a Mai Tai and listen to DeLima Ohana on the outdoor stage under the kiawe tree at the Halekulani, Waikiki’s classiest five-star hotel. All the major resorts feature local bands often with ukuleles harmonising with Hawaii’s other iconic instrument, the slack-key guitar. Their mellow tunes lilt on the warm tropical air and echo the rhythm of the rolling surf.

In your Hawaiian ukulele odyssey look out for pros like Benny Chong (YouTube) but don’t just stop here. Ukuleles also have an edgy alter ego. That’s the domain of the New Age players whose virtuoso performances have garnered huge numbers of YouTube fans.

Jake Shimabukuro (YouTube) is a must-see whenever he is playing in Honolulu. Two other rising stars are Taimane Gardner (YouTube) and Brittni Paiva (YouTube).

 Your say 

Given its compact size the ukulele makes a perfect traveling companion.

I’d love to hear about any cool ukulele traveling stories and who are your favorite ukulele players either in Hawaii or anywhere around the world.

Kamaka makes a wide range of ukuleles

Kamaka makes a wide range of ukuleles


Hawaiian ukuleles

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Hawaiian ukuleles 21.306944, -157.858333

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

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