“The ukulele is like a baby,” says Kathy Sakuma. “You hold the ukulele gently—close to your heart. You hear the sweet sound of the strings and you feel instant joy and can’t help but smile and fall in love with it. We see every day how the ukulele brings smiles, healing, joy, hope. This tiny, ordinary instrument has an extraordinary way of touching the lives of people.”
That pretty much sums up why Roy and Kathy Sakuma have tirelessly dedicated most of their lives to promoting the ukulele. Roy is unquestionably the most successful and influential ukulele teacher ever—his Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, now numbering four, have been an Oahu fixture for a few decades now and nurtured thousands of students,from superstar Jake Shimabukuro to folks who are happy with playing their local kanikapila gatherings. Roy organized what is regarded as the first major ukulele festival in Honolulu 50 years ago (July 1971), and over time it has grown tremendously in size and stature, attracting the biggest names of the ukulele world to the Kapiolani Park bandshell along the way. At the same time, his festivals (which also include big events on Maui and the Big Island), have always showcased his students and other young players—and raised money for scholarships and youth programs.
With Roy and Kathy electing to step back a bit from their all-consuming roles as producers of Ukulele Festival Hawaii’s big Oahu event, we thought this might be a good time to ask Roy a few questions about his remarkable career as a ukulele advocate and a mentor to so many. —Blair Jackson
You are, of course, best known as a teacher. What made you want to get into teaching?
I heard a hit song on the radio, “Sushi” by ukulele virtuoso Herb “Ohta-San” Ohta. I was 16, growing up in a home with my mom’s mental illness. Struggling with misdirection, my behavior resulted in being kicked out of school. Ohta-San took me under his wing, and through his guidance and mentorship a new world of direction and discipline opened up to me. I wore out the frets of my ukulele, practicing eight to ten hours a day. Ohta-San inspired me and set me in the right direction and that was the turning point of my life. I wanted to become a better ukulele player than him. Funny thing is, the more he taught me, the more I realized how great my teacher was and how much more I had to learn.
Soon, Ohta-San asked me to teach his classes while he went away on a concert tour in Japan. I immediately discovered my true calling was not in performing but in teaching. From that moment on, teaching students to play the ukulele became my passion. In 1974, with Ohta-San’s blessing, my wife and I opened our first ukulele studio and have dedicated our lives to teaching the ukulele and spreading its joy. Our staff of instructors are all former students, and we now have four locations on Oahu.
Who are the uke players that you looked up to when you were starting out?
When I was a youngster, I admired and looked up to Ohta-San, Eddie Kamae, Don Baduria, Jesse Kalima. Ohta-San inspired and challenged me. He has been the most prolific and prominent ukulele artist, a true pioneer of transforming the ukulele from being viewed as a novelty instrument to that of a major solo instrument. Even now, when Ohta-San picks up the ukulele, I’m still in awe of his musicianship and artistry. He is the master of all masters. I recall Ohta-San sharing how much Eddie had taught him. I was fascinated by Eddie Kamae’s technique and innovative picking style. Back then Eddie played Latin, Spanish, jazz. Ohta-San once had me play a song I just learned, “Yusef Lateef Blues,” and I was so nervous. But Eddie encouraged me and his words were a big help.
Your first ukulele festival was in 1971. Why did you put that on, and was it immediately well-received in the ukulele community?
I was 23 years old, and a groundskeeper at Kapiolani Park in Waikiki, and as I cleaned the park, I would dream of presenting a free concert on the bandstand stage to show the world that any song could be played with virtuosity on the ukulele—as Ohta-San had taught me—and that it was not just a rhythm instrument for background music.
There was very little interest in the ukulele. It had become a thing of the past and relegated to dusty corners in closets. Many thought of the ukulele as a novelty and not a “real” instrument. Everyone had latched on to the sound of the guitar because of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
In 1971, my dream came true with the support of the City & County of Honolulu and Moroni Medeiros, a city information specialist. Kamaka Hawaii put up an ukulele display and a small and passionate group of ukulele students I taught performed a wide variety of music showcasing the ukulele’s versatility. Hawaii’s professional ukulele musicians came out for free to perform—Eddie Kamae, Jesse Kalima, Gordon Mark, Tony Bee, Eddie Bush. That was the birth of the first and original ukulele festival in Hawaii, and the seed was planted for ukulele festivals to reach all corners of the world.
Today, the Ukulele Festival Hawaii is a summer tradition. Families jam the park. Ukulele fans wouldn’t miss it. Tourists follow the sounds of music. The ukulele, an icon of aloha and Hawaii’s most celebrated instrument, embraces everyone who hears it. That’s the irresistible charm of the ukulele. People are discovering that the ukulele is such an approachable instrument because of its ease of learning.
The sound of the ukulele is beautiful in the hands of a beginner as well as an advanced player. The ukulele festival has always been free, and it has thrived and survived thanks to the gracious support from the community, our friends, sponsors, and the entertainers who donate their time and talent. Our staff of instructors, students and their parents, our friends, all became volunteers helping in one way or another.
In 2004, we established Ukulele Festival Hawaii, a nonprofit charitable organization to continue our life’s work of preserving interest and spreading the joy of the ukulele. It is through Ukulele Festival Hawaii that we can produce, promote, and organize free ukulele festivals, workshops, and college scholarships, and provide ukuleles to those in need.
What made you decide to turn over the reins of the UFH to Craig and Sarah?
Kathy, who has been the driving force of organizing our ukulele festival on Oahu all these years, informed the Board of Directors that the 50th anniversary [in 2020] would be her last year managing and organizing the event. People would tease her in hopes that she would reconsider. Organizing the event has been a blessing, but youthful energy is necessary to continue this enormous event into the 21st century. Fifty years is the perfect time to make the transition. We just didn’t expect to be dealing with the pandemic at the same time!
Yet, it was the pandemic that brought Craig and Sarah back to Hawaii in 2020, and that put them on our radar. We sought them out and had met them virtually and recognized Craig and Sarah’s love for and dedication to the ukulele. In addition, Craig and Sarah offer experience with live and virtual event organizing, they are loved in the ukulele community in Hawaii and abroad, and they are teachers of the instrument. They will be great organizers for Oahu’s event, and we especially look forward to 2022 when we can all be together and return to Kapiolani Park.
Kathy and I continue to be involved with Ukulele Festival Hawaii, which oversees ukulele festivals on Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island, and we are focused on mentoring a new generation of ukulele proponents to carry on Ukulele Festival Hawaii’s mission.
For people who have never been to the Oahu festival, can you briefly talk about what is special about it and about Kapiolani Park?
In Kapiolani Park, you’ll hear joyful melodies that fill the air on a balmy summer day in Waikiki. You’ll see a thousand tiny tots, jazzy teens, silver-haired seniors, Hawaii’s famed ukulele makers, world renowned musicians, local celebrities, and other incredible ukulele players from different countries all gathered together. And, its free! There’s no admission fee for the all-day event; it’s open to anyone! You’ll enjoy food booths, ukulele displays, activities for children, ukulele lessons, ukulele giveaways and all-day music. The festival is not about making money. It’s about hundreds of people sharing their talent and love of the ukulele. In return, they are recognized and appreciated by community folks.
How long do you think you will keep teaching?
The instructors at Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, under the guidance of Wendy Yoshioka, will continue the fun and joy of Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios by sharing their love of the ukulele and by being an integral part of Ukulele Festival Hawaii’s growth and success. They’re energetic, inspiring, and fun. For me personally, I’m 74 years old but my love for teaching never grows old. I’ll continue to teach as long as I can. Teaching energizes me and I still have a lot more to share with students and our staff.