When you think "best of the best," the Super Bowl, the Masters Golf Tournament, the Rhodes scholarship, the Pulitzer or the Nobel may come to mind.
When it comes to the world of ukulele? It's the Roy Sakuma Ukulele Festival, which returns to the Kapiolani Park bandstand on Sunday, July 17, 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
In Hawaii, where the ukulele is as popular as flower lei and the beach, Sakuma is one of its biggest names. He learned to play the uniquely Hawaiian instrument under ukulele master Ohta-San in his mid-teens. Today, Sakuma has taught upwards of 45,000 students over a career spanning 40 years — including me. I took lessons from the man himself during the 4th and 5th grade.
The festival began as a daydream of a young Sakuma while he was taking a lunch break from his maintenance work at Kapiolani Park. He sat in the park's iconic bandstand and said, "One day, I'd like to put on an ukulele festival." A few feet away, a stranger replied, "Dreams come true." Encouraged, Sakuma went to city hall, where he met Moroni Medeiros, who was so enthusiastic that he helped Sakuma coordinate the 1st Annual Ukulele Festival in 1971.
Forty years later, the biggest names in ukulele from around the world perform there, names like Jake Shimabukuro, Ohta-San, Ho'okena, Korea's Ukulele Picnic, Italy's Jontom, Thailand's Singto Namchok and many more. Talents from Australia, Taiwan, Guam, Japan and the mainland U.S. will also perform.
What most people come to see, though, is the children's performance — Sakuma's keiki band. His current batch of students (roughly 600 children and 100 adults) will perform songs learned during their lessons. Imagine hundreds of children playing at once in an orchestra. (I played "Bridge over the River Kwai" 10 years ago in the keiki band.)
What else to expect? All of the major ukulele manufacturers will be selling their instruments, and Sakuma and his teachers will offer free ukulele lessons. There will be plenty of food on hand, plus souvenirs, the proceeds of which go to the Ukulele Festival Hawaii foundation to spread the teachings of the ukulele to Hawaii's youth.
For visitors, Sakuma said the festival is a big draw. "We have tourists who plan their annual vacation around our event. Some have been coming for 15 years."
In 1976, Sakuma was asked if he thought the ukulele could go global. Without hesitating, he said, "Yes." Today, there are ukulele festivals the world over.
But this is the original. What started as a daydream is now the ukulele's biggest stage.