Master player Sakuma is guest at first Kauai ukelele festival

Roy Sakuma, touted as Hawaii’s most prominent ukulele teacher, has taught 50,000 students in Hawaii, the United States and Japan over a 40-year period.

Sakuma helped shape the style, talent and careers of some of Hawaii’s premier ukulele players, including Jake Shimabukuro. Sakuma also founded the ukulele festival at Kapiolani Park on Oahu 32 years ago, an event that has grown in popularity and has promoted the playing of ukulele worldwide.

Sakuma will be participating in the first annual Kauai ukulele festival scheduled at the Kukui Grove Shopping Center on Saturday.

Sakuma’s mentor, Ohta-san, and his mentor’s son, Herb Ohta Jr., two expert ukulele players from Hawaii, will be participating in the Kukui Grove event.

The ukulele master will be flying to Kauai Friday with his wife, Kathy, to offer workshops to help ukulele players on Kauai to improve their skills. Sakuma asked that participants be able to play the C, A minor, F and G7 chords before joining the workshop.

The event will be sponsored by the Radisson Kauai Beach Resort, the GString Ukulele Co., Kamaka Hawaii Inc., KoAloha Ukulele and Lanikai Ukulele.

Each of the ukulele companies is donate an instrument. The KoAloha ukulele being given away is special to Sakuma, as he, his wife, Kathy, and Hawaii singer Alvin Okami produced it in 1997 and have marketed it.

Sakuma has taught students at four studios he and his wife operate on Oahu. Some of his students are the biggest-name ukulele players in Hawaii, including Shimabukuro, Daniel Ho and Kelley Boyd DeLima who plays with Kapena.

The 25 ukulele instructors Sakuma has hired for his studios are all former students.

He is most well known for having founded the Oahu-based ukulele festival. This year’s festival is scheduled for July 27, with up to 900 performers anticipated to participate.

Sakuma sponsored the event in 1970 to show “the people of Hawaii that the ukukele is a lead instrument” comparable to the tone and quality of the guitar or any other string instrument.

The idea was to let the best performers show the stellar qualities of the ukulele and their talents, Sakuma said.

The first festival drew several hundred people, but the event has grown significantly, drawing between 7,000 to 10,000 during recent festivals, Sakuma said. The promoters expect the same turnout this year.

The promoters of the first event were inventive, calling on ukulele players to perform a rendition of the Hawaii Five-O theme song. “We have come a long way since then,” Sakuma said. “The ukulele festival in Hawaii is considered the ukulele festival in the world.”

He said he pushed for the festival because “no one took the initiative to bring the ukulele to the forefront.”

The idea for the festival came to him when he was working as a city groundskeeper at Kapiolani Park, Sakuma said. He was later transferred to a recreation division because he had talked enthusiastically about the ukulele and his supervisor saw “that I had the talent to put on a music festival,” Sakuma said.

Sakuma recalled he received guidance from Moroni Medeiros, a promotions director for the City and County of Honolulu at the time.

With the help of the Hawaii International Ukulele Club and the City and County of Honolulu, the first ukulele festival was held in 1970.

The holding of that festival changed his life, Sakuma said. ” I would have remained a groundskeeper if I had not decided to hold it,” he said.

Sakuma resigned from his city job after eight years and committed himself to teaching ukulele.

Sakuma, now 56 years old said it is possible to motivate those who might have a hard time learning to use the instrument, including those with disabilities and the very young.

“There is not anyone I cannot teach,” he said in an interview with The Garden Island. “No matter how many problems you have, we can solve them. I can motivate people. I can sit down with them, and in a couple of minutes, get them to learn how to improve themselves and play the song correctly.”

Sakuma said he has this confidence because of the struggles he has gone through in learning how to master the instrument and because of his early hardships in life.

Growing up in Honolulu, Sakuma didn’t like school and floundered. He was “released” from school at age 14, although he later received a high school degree through home schooling.

At age 15, he started to learn how to play the ukulele, “the turning point of my life,” Sakuma said.

At age 18, he formed a group, but he found he wasn’t as good as some of the older and more experienced ukulele players.

In 1963, Sakuma was introduced to Ohta-san, now widely considered the master of ukulele playing, having recorded over 75 albums worldwide, and has had over 300 of his songs played on radio. Among his favorites is the “Song for Anna,” which has sold more than 6 million copies.

Sakuma said he was able to learn how to play the ukulele correctly only because Ohta-san put the songs on paper, allowing for better comprehension.”

Ohta-san taught Sakuma for 18 month, at the end of which, Sakuma began to master the ukulele.

“He told me that I had learned more in 18 months than he had learned in five years, and that he was encouraging me to move on,” Sakuma said.

It was Ohta-san that helped him to pursue a career as a teacher of the ukulele rather than as a performer, Sakuma said.

In 1966, his mentor went on a tour to Japan and asked Sakuma to take over his classes on Oahu.

“When he came back, he asked me whether I would want to teach his students,” Sakuma said. “I said yes,’ because I enjoyed teaching his students, and I have been teaching ever since.”

Sakuma said his mentor had a profound impact on his life, and that he has held Ohta-san in the highest respect most of his adult life.

“He was a sergeant in the Marine Corps and was a disciplinarian. He was exactly what I needed,” Sakuma said. “He not only taught me how to play the ukulele, but he allowed me to develop discipline, which I needed then and which I retain today.”

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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