I went to my 'ukulele class yesterday. There are now just four of us in the class, thanks to the usual attrition after a year of weekly meetings. We had a much larger group when we gave our first recital in April.
Our teacher volunteered to be the halau's official 'ukulele instructor. She also organized the halau band comprised of a guitar player, a couple of 'uke players and two vocalists.
She teaches music to elementary school students and leads a very musical life. But she tells us that teaching us how to play the 'ukulele is what has made her feel truly fulfilled as a music teacher.
It's good for us, too. How could you not love the 'ukulele? What a happy sounding instrument! It was originally introduced to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1870s by a group of Portuguese workers, who had sailed all the way from the Island of Madeira, off the shore of Northwestern Africa, to work in the sugarcane and pineapple plantations. They played a little four-stringed instrument called the machete or braguinha, which was immediately embraced by the fun-loving King Kaläkaua. The instrument was given the name 'ukulele, which means jumping flea. It's how observers described the players' agile fingers leaping over the strings. The happy little instrument was soon used to accompany many of the new style hula dances.
A Honolulu instrument maker named Samuel Kamaka decided to improve upon the instrument and in 1916 began selling the koa-wood 'ukuleles he made by hand. Kamaka is credited with producing the first true Hawaiian 'ukulele. The Kamaka company, now run by Samuel's grandsons, still makes the top-of-the-line, gorgeous instruments in gleaming koa wood with two inlaid mother of pearl K's in the mahogany neck. The K's represent Samuel's sons, Samuel Jr. and Fred. When I was in Honolulu in March and visited the Kamaka factory, 84-year-old Fred, pictured above playing one of his father's priceless pineapple 'ukes, was my tour guide.
Our teacher has a Kamaka 'ukulele and sometimes she lets us play it. A heavenly experience! So why didn't I buy a souvenir after touring the factory? The "budget" model is $650. For the time being, I'll stick with my Flea 'ukulele, which cost about a fourth of that but still does a fine job of producing that happy sound.
I studied hula for three years in Aloha, Oregon, and along the way developed a passion for all things Hawaiian. I also studied 'ukulele and the Hawaiian language.
When I'm not hula'ing, 'uking or practicing 'olelo Hawai'i, I am a professional writer with years of experience writing for local, regional and national publications. Most notably, I was a regular for The Wall Street Journal for 17 years.
Someday I hope to write a book about my obsession with Hawaiian culture.