BY BLAIR JACKSON | PHOTOS BY CRAIG CHEE | FROM THE SUMMER 2021 ISSUE OF UKULELE
An awful lot has happened in the lives of Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel since they last appeared on the cover of Ukulele in the summer of 2014 (issue #5). At that point, they had just recently come out publicly as a romantic couple for the first time, after meeting at the DaSilva Ukulele booth at the 2013 NAMM show in Anaheim, California. Each was already building a successful solo career, but over the succeeding year, they grew closer as they traveled and played at many of the same ukulele events, and eventually fell for each other. She was Alabama-born-and-raised and grew up playing the violin and piano long before she moved to the San Diego area and discovered the ukulele when she and some friends attended a Hawaiian-themed night at a pizza restaurant in nearby Encinitas. He was from the Hawaiian island of Oahu and was a serious classical cellist in his youth; basically until he arrived at the University of Oregon in Eugene as a freshman and decided to have fun and also explore his Hawaii roots by taking up the uke.
They brought their own distinctive styles and musical proclivities into their musical partnership, yet it clicked immediately. Within a year they had married in a beautiful outdoor ceremony on the North Shore of Oahu (with many ukers in attendance), settled together in the San Diego area, and slowly but surely “Craig and Sarah” (as everyone calls them) became much-in-demand participants in ukulele festivals, workshops, and cruises. They have written songs and put out albums together (my favorite is their 2018 collection of standards, Honeysuckle Rose), and during that most difficult pandemic year of 2020, they took on a leadership role in the ukulele community by putting together a pair of truly wonderful online “mini-fests” featuring performances by dozens of well-known and less-known figures in the contemporary uke world, as well as workshops galore. Their good vibes and optimistic spirit are evident in everything they do.
On a personal level, 2020 ended up being a fantastic year for Craig and Sarah: On January 6, Sarah gave birth to their son, Cameron (who fleetingly appeared during the mini-fests), and then this past fall, the family moved to Honolulu. Evidently, the duo has had no trouble fitting into Oahu’s ukulele universe—indeed, this past winter they were honored to be asked to take over production of the huge and world-famous Ukulele Festival Hawaii from founders Roy and Kathy Sakuma. Roy has been the leading ukulele teacher on Oahu for many decades now (he has teaching studios in four different locations), and has put on successful, ever-growing uke festivals in Honolulu’s beautiful Kapiolani Park for the past 50 years. The Sakumas also put on smaller uke festivals on Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii.
This year, under Craig and Sarah’s leadership, the Ukulele Festival Hawaii will be mainly virtual because of pandemic restrictions, but a few things about it won’t change: It will still showcase fantastic ukulele players from all over, be free, and also serve as a fundraiser (through donations and sponsorships) for youth scholarships and programs.
In mid-February, we chatted with Craig and Sarah about their momentous life changes.
I know you folks moved, with baby Cameron in tow, to Hawaii in the fall of 2020. Of course Craig grew up there and has family there, but what prompted the move, and did doing it during the height of the pandemic pose any special challenges?
SARAH: We had been talking about moving, but were looking at it as a future thing—in a few years. When the pandemic hit, we were discussing our future, and I looked at Craig and said, “Why are we here? We can’t tour or travel, which is why we have stayed in California.” This set Craig’s mind into motion, and the next thing I knew, we were moving!
Moving during COVID was definitely not ideal. The biggest challenge was trying to keep Cameron safe, since he can’t wear a mask. It was super stressful getting to the big moving day, but once we landed and walked into our new home, we both felt this immediate sense of relief.
CRAIG: It was definitely a struggle to keep up with our online school, online events, and caring for the newborn while prepping for the big move and also keeping an eye on the ever-changing situation with the pandemic. Luckily, Sarah and I had each other to lean on and we forced each other to take breaks when needed. We know how lucky we were to have each other during that year filled with craziness.
You’ve both been back to Oahu many times through the years and no doubt have kept up with the uke/music scene there somewhat. But now that you’re in it full-time, what are your observations about the health of the scene? Has it been easy establishing, or re-establishing bonds with musicians there?
SARAH: I feel that we actually got closer with folks here before we moved. We were fortunate to be a part of an online group called Ukulele Friends Hawaii. We’d meet up twice a week, during 2020, and share stories, have guest panelists, and encourage one another during our meetings. It really was a wonderful way to connect, even before we moved. Now that we are here, it has been great to see our friends, though we don’t get to really hang out and play music like we would during normal times. Even though things are still not “normal,” musicians are still finding ways to get together and play safely. Many of our friends here are finally teaching online! It’s great to see their growth and encourage them.
CRAIG: Even though I would be home in Hawaii at least once a year, I actually spent most of that time with just family and friends, and used that as a break from being a full-time musician. Through our years of attending various ukulele festivals and events, we got to meet so many other amazing artists, but we actually didn’t meet a lot of players who were still living in the Islands. We’ve been slowly getting more local artists involved with those mainland and international events and are excited to be able to help them even more now that we’re here. We owe a lot of our connection to the musicians here to Bryan Tolentino, Herb Ohta, Jr., and Jake Shimabukuro. For me, especially, it’s been really nice to connect with some of my heroes and share my experiences with the ukulele abroad and being able to connect with the stories and history here.
What are your own experiences with Roy and Kathy Sakuma’s Ukulele Festival Hawaii through the years? Have either or both of you played it much?
SARAH: We had always wanted to play at the festival, and that dream came true in 2019. It was such a beautiful experience—the crowd was so welcoming, and we got to perform with our friends Bryan Tolentino, Kalei Gamiao, and Corey Fujimoto. I even saved our parking spot voucher, because I was so excited to get to be a part of the festival.
CRAIG: Many people do not realize that I got my start at the Kaimuki location of the Roy Sakuma Studio. His methodology of teaching fit perfectly with my background in cello and piano. It gave me the confidence to forge ahead, eventually taking lessons from Jake Shimabukuro and Troy Fernandez. I remember going to the festival a few times growing up, and I was always amazed by how much fun everyone was having in celebration of the ukulele. I feel that the instrument is a bit taken for granted here in Hawaii, but I love how Roy and Kathy have always advocated for the tiny instrument and strived to raise it to new heights.
How is it that you two were brought on board to put this year’s festival together? I would suspect that the success of your virtual mini-fests must have influenced the decision, no? Is this a one-year thing because of the pandemic, or will you continue to work the fest?
SARAH: We went through all the emotions when Roy and Kathy reached out to us. Apparently, we had been on their radar for a few years. Kathy had heard about us and had a passing thought of “Wouldn’t it be nice if they lived here?” We had been in contact with Roy because of the online chat group we’ve been a part of [Ukulele Friends Hawaii]. This group did an interview with Roy and he took the time to thank us for referring folks to his awesome chord book—A Treasury of Ukulele Chords. Once they heard we had moved, they wanted to get to know us a bit better, so we set up Zoom meetings and shared ideas about the future of ukulele . . . and now here we are!
CRAIG: Yes, as Sarah says, we went from shock to disbelief to sheer excitement to a small amount of fear! It is such a big legacy to take over and there is a lot of pressure to maintain that, as well as help innovate for the future. Sarah and I are definitely in it for the long haul. We see it as a way of helping the community that has given us . . . well, everything. We hope to inspire and also give opportunities to artists. The success of the virtual mini-events definitely helped start that conversation with Roy and Kathy, but we were amazed at all the support and kind words people in the ukulele community had for us as Roy and Kathy went through a vetting process to learn more about us.
What sort of things do you have planned for this year’s festival? How does working with such a well-established entity as the UFH differ from the more down-home, “with a little help from our friends” approach you necessarily took with your wonderful mini-fests?
SARAH: We are so incredibly excited about this year! We will be doing more than just the one main event on July 18, 2021. To get folks excited and ready for July, we will be hosting three mini-events, once a month, starting in April. Each one will have a theme for our audience to enjoy, and they will be free. All events will be livestreamed from the Ala Moana Hotel [in Honolulu] on the official UFH YouTube channel.
The first event will be April 11, with a focus on local artists and highlighting the four largest ukulele manufacturers on Oahu: Kamaka, Ko’olau, KoAloha, and Kanile’a. We will have other ukulele makers and companies featured throughout all the events, as well. The second event will be May 16, a workshop day. This will be a fun-filled day of learning with the masters—Roy Sakuma will teach, as will Jake Shimabukuro and Neal Chin.
CRAIG: Those events will also be filled with performances from keiki [children’s] groups, as well as uke clubs from all over. The third mini-event will be June 13th, and will be our big international day, consisting of children’s groups, uke clubs, and artists from all over the globe. This will all be leading up to the main festival in July. There are so many ideas we have that mixed-media platforms are allowing us to do.
As far as the approach between the two styles of events, we’re hoping to play on both of their strengths. We had a very grassroots feeling to our mini-events which paralleled all of the support from volunteers and guests through the years of UFH. A lot of the money raised for the artists came from small donations from a large audience.
I gather that the UFH has always been very supportive of various charities and nonprofit groups. Will that continue to be the case?
SARAH: The UFH is a nonprofit that presents college scholarships to Hawaii high school students every year. This will continue, and we hope to be able to give out even more scholarships than before.
It is our sponsors, such as our new title sponsor Hawaiian Host, that allow us to keep these events available to everyone. We are incredibly grateful for their support, as well as for the ukulele community’s support. We literally couldn’t do it without all of them.
Can you talk a bit about Roy as a person and his role in the uke scene in Hawaii?
SARAH: Roy has always had an incredible love of teaching. He’ll be the first to tell you that he’d rather be teaching than performing. But don’t let that fool you—he is a very accomplished player. He studied with Ohta-San [Herb Ohta], and that eventually led to him creating his own methods of teaching and his famous ukulele studio.
His focus has always been the kids of Hawaii, making sure that they have access to music. As soon as you meet him, you can see and hear his passion for music education.
CRAIG: Roy is such an inspiration to both the young and young at heart. He shares his soul through the ukulele and proves you can overcome any hardships once you set your mind to it. He innovated and blazed the trail for so many of us, not just setting the bar, but creating it.
What sort of things do you have planned down the road, after the festival is over? I guess it’s still too early to make firm plans about traveling to festivals.
SARAH: Currently, we are already planning Ukulele Festival Hawaii 2022 and our “San Diego” Ukulele Retreat. Since we have moved, that retreat—which was supposed to happen in 2020—will be moved to Hawaii, as well. Looking ahead at Ukulele Festival Hawaii 2022, we hope to be back at Kapiolani Park, where we can continue the in-person festival and celebrate with our friends. There will still be a livestream aspect of the festival, for those that wish to participate but cannot travel all the way to Hawaii.
We are also going to continue our monthly livestreams, and we’ve got some great new ones in the works! And, of course, we are always creating new content and challenges for our online students with ArtistWorks.
I am, though, looking forward to having more time on our hands to do songwriting and arranging. Both of us have so many ideas that we just need to flesh out, and I know that we’ll be able to once this year’s festivities are done.
CRAIG: We’ve always tried to plan out about a year or two in advance, and even though some things have shifted to virtual, we will still keep busy creating new opportunities for fans of the ukulele and for artists, as well. Sarah and I probably won’t be traveling nearly as much in the next few years, as we focus on raising Cameron, but I still think you might see us at a handful of events. I think the next few years will be focused on producing events—both virtual and live—and then we will shift again to more personal musical growth and carving out time to write and stretch our musical wings.
Sarah and I have been so fortunate to be in a position to help others during this unprecedented time. We want to say a big thank you to all of those who supported us and the ukulele through the years, as we know we could not have done it alone. Thank you for the opportunity to build upon one legacy and to create our own.