by Audrey Coleman
“Hawaii is the Mecca and the Jerusalem of the ukulele,” Paul Moore declared to the audience at Honolulu’s Kapiolani Park, as he introduced the uke orchestra of 12 Israeli Jewish and Arab children that he directs in the heart of the Middle East. Called Ukuleles for Peace, the ensemble performed at the 45th Annual Ukulele Festival on July 19 and spent five days playing and jamming with the locals. An average age of 14, the members sang in English, Hebrew, and Arabic while strumming and picking their hearts out, wowing the crowd with a high-octane version of “Hit the Road, Jack!”
“They received three hana hous [requests for encores],” recalls festival volunteer Seymour Kazimirski, who arranged concerts for the orchestra at the local Hard Rock Café and the synagogue Temple Emanu-El, and hosted the kids for dinner at his home.
Here’s a video of the full performance, with an introduction from Roy Sakuma!
Paul Moore founded Ukuleles for Peace 11 years ago with the conviction that Arab and Jewish children can find common ground sharing music and become the adult peacemakers of the future. A longtime ukulele player with a love for Hawaiian music, he formed the ukulele orchestra with half the members from a Jewish-Israeli school and the other half from an Arab-Israeli school.
Although both schools are located in Israel, their communities had virtually no contact before the project began. As it took shape, teacher Daphna Orion of the Jewish Democratic School of Hod Hasharon came on board as managing director to help Moore deal with participants, staff, parents, and their communities. Both have always worked as volunteers. In July, they launched their most ambitious project: a three-week tour to several cities in the eastern U.S., plus participation in the world’s premier ukulele festival in Honolulu.
The atmosphere during their visit provided a dramatic contrast to life in their homeland. “When you live in a country like ours, where there’s a lot of tension,” says Moore, “we’re always under that strain . . . whereas in Hawaii there isn’t that tension.”
Throughout the trip, Ukuleles for Peace encountered aloha in various forms. At three concert venues, guitarist-vocalist Willie K. serenaded them passionately in Hebrew. During the Festival’s gala dinner, held at the Ala Moana Hotel where they were staying, vocalist Danny Kaleikini, Hawaii’s longtime “Ambassador of Aloha,” sang in their honor. At that same gala, representatives from Oahu’s top ukulele companies—Kamaka, KoAloha, Ko`olau, and Kanile`a—donated a total of 16 high-end ukuleles to the project. A few days later, Leolani Ukulele gave all the orchestra members new instruments to keep.
At the Temple Emanu-El concert, Moore was particularly touched to see ukulele legend Eddie Kamae beam a warm, encouraging smile at the young ukulele players throughout their performance. Also at the synagogue event, vocalist and uke player Jesse Garcia presented two ukuleles as his personal gift to the project, one electric and one acoustic. A few days later, Garcia sought out the group to bid them a sweet farewell. “He came with this huge case,” Orion recalls “and he distributed to everyone boxes of Hawaiian chocolates. It was such a lovely gesture.”
In another surprising encounter, a stranger carrying a big bag approached the group in Kapiolani Park. At first Moore thought the man was trying to sell him something, but eventually it became clear that Fred Ogawa was a military veteran with gifts for the young people. “He had prepared a drawing for each one of the kids to take home,” says Orion. “Drawings with ukuleles, the Hawaiian flag, hibiscus flowers, hula dancers—each one was different.”
“He’d actually framed them all,” adds Moore.
An invitation to a local ukulele jam session further cemented Moore’s sense of kinship with Hawaiian musicians. Held in a back lot not far from Waikiki Beach, the gathering incorporated Moore and interested orchestra members into the musical exchange. “It was nice to be just part of that aloha thing—kanikapila. I think they do it regularly on Sunday nights. It was a great atmosphere. We all had a lot of fun, and they shared their songs.”
The most intense, encompassing expression of aloha came from Ukulele Festival founder and director Roy Sakuma, who arranged to cover airfare and accommodation expenses for Ukuleles for Peace. In a workshop for the orchestra, Sakuma talked about the importance of accepting oneself and not absorbing hurtful messages from the outside. He sang a song he had been inspired to compose on the subject more than 30 years before.
“I taught it to the people there, and I was specifically focused on the children from Israel because I felt such a deep love for them,” Sakuma recalls. Busy as he was, Sakuma literally embraced the 12 children, hugging them countless times.
His impact was not lost on Moore. “What I noticed with the kids—bearing in mind that we were all under a lot of stress and strain, staying three or four to a room—whenever Roy was around, all the kids had a wonderful smile on their face because Roy radiates that love.”
It was a unique exchange in which, from Sakuma’s perspective, Ukuleles for Peace enhanced the 2015 Ukulele Festival. “The presence of the children added the focus of peace. The festival has always been filled with laughter, love, and hope, with hundreds of children participating every year. But having this group come all the way from Israel and to see them perform together with the compassion and love they had for one another brought much hope that there can be peace. These children can teach us so much about how we should live our lives. They can play music and be friends together. Why can’t the rest of the world?”