Return of the Ukulele

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Story by Rita Goldman  |  Photography by Cecilia Fernández Romero

The plucky little instrument with the Hawaiian name has been making an enormous comeback. That’s in no small part thanks to performers like Jake Shimabukuro and the late Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole, whose demonstrations of the ‘ukulele’s astounding versatility have epiphanied audiences’ socks off.

And it’s not just an island phenomenon, notes Toronto filmmaker Tony Coleman in his 2010 documentary The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog, which features Shimabukuro. ‘Ukulele clubs and classes can be found all over the globe.

Nor is this the first time the diminutive instrument has captured the public’s imagination. Over the decades, a surprising array of celebrities has found the humble ‘uke appealing—from Elvis Presley to Arthur Godfrey, from The Cars’ Greg Hawkes to the Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer. All three of the Beatles who played guitar also performed on ‘ukulele. Of course, Hawai‘i’s King David Kalakaua wasn’t only a fan; he knew the correct pronunciation (at least here in the Islands  is “oo-koo-lay-lay,” sans the initial “y.”)

Kazoos aside, few instruments are as easily mastered as the ‘uke—at least at the basic level. When the accomplished and irreverent ‘Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain played Albert Hall, performing with ‘ukulele in hand and tongue in cheek, so did many in the audience, who had brought their own ‘ukes along.

“Anyone can learn to play a couple of chords,” says a fan in The Mighty ‘Uke. “It’s a people’s instrument.”

For a group of Maui kama‘aina, it’s also a way to preserve an island heritage. Moana Anderson and Honeybun Haynes are among the fourteen members of Honeybun and the Coconuts, an ‘ukulele band that performs at the Pukalani Country Club on Tuesday nights. Their musical coach is Walter Kawae‘aea, protégé of the late, legendary Kahauanu Lake. “What we do has a lot to do with ‘Uncle K,’” says Anderson.

Inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame in 2004, Kahauanu Lake was a self-taught musician whose eponymous trio was for decades one of Waikiki’s premier Hawaiian bands. Lake both treasured and challenged tradition; he elevated the ‘ukulele by bringing it out of the rhythm section and making it a lead instrument. He also worked tirelessly to preserve Hawaiian music as it had been played for generations.

“We came together specifically to revive his music,” says Anderson. “Almost everything we play is Hawaiian or old hapa-haole songs we grew up with that people don’t hear much anymore. We want our children to hear it.”

Can’t get enough? The fourth annual Maui ‘Ukulele Festival returns to the Maui Arts & Cultural Center October 17, and admission is free.

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