Mastering the Ukulele in Hawaii

Maligned, scorned, even snickered at—the ukulele has always been regarded as more of an oddity than a serious instrument. But in Hawaii, they are anything but a trifle.


I feel like I’ve just walked into a Star Trek convention—and I’m the only person who doesn’t know who Captain Kirk is.

Thirty or so ukulele enthusiasts are getting down to business—tuning their baby guitars, chatting with seatmates or strumming away—when I amble into the Outrigger Waikiki on the Beach lobby for a special Saturday-morning beginners’ ukulele lesson.

The assembled group is all over the demographic map: young and old, men and women, tattooed and in Tan Jay; mostly local folks, but with an obvious smattering of pasty-white visitors. Everyone looks like they know what they’re doing. And that worries me.

Exploring the Hawaiian Music Scene

I’m here on a bit of a cultural lark. I’ve never played a ukulele and, truth be told, never really “got” the whole Hawaiian music thing (I blame this on my parents, who dragged me to see Don Ho, Mr. Tiny Bubbles himself, when I was an impressionable 12-year-old visiting Waikiki for the first time).

But after many Hawaii vacations in which I’ve done little more than play in the sun and surf, I’ve promised myself that, this trip, I will seek out some close encounters of the cultural kind.

Exploring the Hawaiian music scene—including this ukulele lesson led by Oahu-born musician Daniel Ho—seems a good place to start.

The first thing I learn is I don’t even know how to pronounce the name of Hawaii’s most distinctive contribution to the world of stringed instruments. I hear participants referring to their baby guitars as oo-koo-lay-lays. Call me Canadian, but I always say, you-ka-lay-lee. I switch my pronunciation in hopes of fitting in.

Dan Ho is the Man

While waiting to get a loaner oo-koo-lay-lay from the organizers, I glance at the stacks of CDs for sale. I’m astonished to see every last one of them has Ho on the cover.

It seems my ukulele teacher is a Hawaiian music superstar with more than 70 CDs to his credit (both as a musician and producer) and numerous music awards, including five Grammy Awards in the best Hawaiian music album category. He plays ukulele, slack key guitar, piano, bass and percussion.

And he sings too. Who knew?

The guy beside me certainly did. “Daniel Ho is the man,” says a local. “When I heard he was giving an ukulele lesson, I grabbed my CDs and my kids and brought them down for signing.”

I assume it’s just the CDs, not the children, he wants autographed.

I take a seat a couple of rows from the front and stare at my tan-coloured loaner ukulele that is, I’m pretty sure, made out of plywood (fancier ukes are made of indigenous koa wood, along with maple, mahogany and other hard woods).

It is no bigger than two loaves of sandwich bread, and weighs even less. Self-consciously, I place my fingers on its neck and strum the strings. The resulting twangy sounds make me blush with embarrassment and I decide to wait for instruction.

Around me, people talk Hawaiian music—who they’ve heard where, new recordings and such. I catch references to Pali, Rebel Souljahz, Alaka’i and Amy Hanaiali’i, but the crowd might as well be speaking Klingon, as I don’t recognize a single name.

When I admit to the people behind me that I’m a visitor and a ukulele novice, the floodgates of advice open. Margaret recommends I check out the ukulele lessons at the Royal Hawaiian Center. Paul suggests I tour the KoAloha Ukulele Factory.

Someone invites me to afternoon ukulele jam sessions on the beach. Loreece assures me, “You can hang out and do ukulele 24/7 on this island.” I find the thought horrifying and briefly contemplate bolting from the room.

Lesson from a Legend

Ten minutes late—“It wouldn’t be Hawaii if we started on time”—Ho steps to the front of the room and plugs in his ukulele (it’s true, ukuleles can be amplified).

He’s dressed in a dusty blue T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops. Ho talks about how happy he is to be in Hawaii (he’s now based in Los Angeles), and how much he loves his new custom six-string ukulele. (Ukes traditionally have four strings, but the extra strings give players more range). I find him earnest and humble.

And then he plays. Oh my, how he plays. I had no idea such sweet and soulful melodies could come from the same instrument that produced ticky-tacky tunes like “My Little Grass Shack.”

Admiring Ho’s intricate, quick-moving fingering, I now understand how the ukulele got its name: in Hawaiian, ukulele means “jumping flea.”

Now it’s the students’ turn. Ho instructs us to pluck diagonally for more presence, and strum confidently for more tone, and touch the body of the instrument as little as possible to get the largest sound.

I’m relieved when he finishes this tsunami of advice with, “If you are doing this just for fun, do it any way you want.”

We begin with some simple fingering. At least, it’s supposed to be simple. I try my best to read the music and mimic his movements and not look pathetic, which I am.

Thankfully, 30 ukuleles make a fair bit of plinky plunky noise and no one seems to notice my ineptitude. We work our way through a few chords before the pads of my fingers start to hurt.

We incorporate those chords into a bouncy song and my head aches from concentrating so hard. After a particularly harmonious group attempt (during which, quite honestly, I was just pretending to strum the strings), Ho compliments the crowd on their ukulele prowess.

Ninety minutes prove to be a very long time for a fish out of water. When the session finishes, I gratefully return my ukulele and pick up Ho’s award-winning CD, Simple as a Sunrise. But I don’t bother to get it signed as the lineup is too long.

Continuing the Ukulele Quest

I now know that ukulele playing is best left to the professionals. I decide that, henceforth, my Hawaiian music quest will involve finding performers who will entertain and educate me in the ways of island music-making—preferably in a bar, with a large mai tai in my hand.

Goodness knows there’s much for me to learn. The traditions of Hawaiian music stretch back to ancient times when mele (chanted poetry) was the musical expression of the islanders.

Things changed when the haole (white folks) arrived. In 1778, Captain James Cook was the first non-Hawaiian to reach the islands, and he opened the floodgates to seafarers, traders, whalers, missionaries and cowboys from Europe and America, who brought their musical instruments and their musical styles.

Islanders took the braguinha, a small, four-stringed guitar that was brought to Hawaii in the 19th century by Portuguese sugar plantation labourers, and created the ukulele.

I begin my search for contemporary Hawaiian music at Tiki’s Grill & Bar, a retro South Pacific-style restaurant in Honolulu that features live contemporary Hawaiian music nightly.

I happily nibble on coconut shrimp and Kalua-pig quesadillas while listening to the little-bit-country sounds of Ellsworth Simeona, a local boy who’s achieved veteran status playing at various Honolulu nightspots.

Folks who swayed to Simeona’s set earlier in the evening are up dancing when Shawn Ishimoto and Ikaika Rawlins play a mix of contemporary Hawaiian and Motown tunes. I drink one too many Malibu coconut rum-laced Greg Brady’s Wipeouts and wake up the next morning feeling, well, wiped out.

On to Maui

Hopping over to Maui, I continue my quest, attending the Celebration of the Arts, a worth-the-trip festival hosted by the Ritz-Carlton Kapalua.

Held each Easter, it’s a (mostly) free fest of hands-on activities and presentations honouring Hawaiian culture, with a killer finale of a luau and show.

While also on the Valley Isle, I find more musical gems, including George Kahumoku Jr.’s slack key show called Masters of Hawaiian Music at the Napili Kai Beach Resort—an interactive mix of music and storytelling.

But of all the music I hear in Hawaii, the sweetest does not come from a person, or even a musical instrument. It reveals itself early one morning at a sunrise ceremony organized on the beach at Kapalua as part of the Maui Celebration of the Arts.

About a hundred of us have gathered on the sand at 5:30 a.m. to perform a Hawaiian oli (chant) and to submerge ourselves in the ocean as an act of personal renewal.

As I dive underwater, I hear alien sounds—notes and chirps and hums that I can’t place. Then it dawns on me: I’m hearing the vocalizations of humpback whales swimming just outside the bay.

I dive down again and again to hear the whale songs, the most exotic of island music.

I realize I’ve fallen under Hawaii’s musical charms and have surrendered to it. After all, resistance is futile.