Love at First Strum: Life Changing Moments for Ukulele Players

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Fifty-five years ago, Roy Sakuma was ready to give up on life. His mother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, as did his older brother, who once threatened Sakuma with a kitchen knife.

When Sakuma’s father stayed away from the house to avoid the chaos, Sakuma lost confidence in himself. Angry, hurt, and confused, the troubled teen abandoned high school, and wandered the streets at night, as a bitter rage grew inside him. A life changing moment came a few years later when he met ukulele master Herb “Ohta-San” Ohta. Formerly in the military, Ohta taught the teen discipline and how to play the four-stringed instrument. Sakuma still looks back at the encounter as a major turning point in his career and life.

“My life was in shambles then – why go on living?,” reflected Sakuma in an interview I did with him at last Saturday’s ukulele workshop at the 19th annual Great Waikoloa Ukulele Festival. In 1970, Sakuma penned a song called “I Am What I Am,” which, in a way, was therapeutic and helped rid years of childhood guilt and blame. “A very dear friend of mine, who is a strong Christian, said, ‘Roy you didn’t write that song – that was divine intervention because it just came out of you!’”

Sakuma, now 72, has come a long way. In 2015, Sakuma received the FBI’s Community Leadership Award for time spent speaking to school children about his experiences regarding bullying, suicide, and insecurity. “It was a big surprise to me,” said Sakuma of the honor. “They said before I came to help, the high school graduation rate was only 55%, but by 2015 it had gone up to 98%… they were amazed nobody left the program.”

Roy Sakuma

Thirty years ago, Sakuma began an annual ukulele festival on Oahu, and this past weekend marked the nineteenth year of a similar festival in Waikoloa. Sakuma began Saturday with a free ukulele workshop in a ballroom at the Marriott Beach Resort. The room was packed with roughly 300 enthusiastic strummers of all shapes, colors, and ages, much like the instruments they held dearly to their bodies.

With laser pointer in hand, Sakuma directed their attention to chords and lyrics projected on a giant screen behind him. Although he only teaches now, Sakuma was assisted on stage by his prized ukulele students: Lee Teraoka, Lopaka Pagdilao, Lauren Baba, and Nick Acosta. Acosta was born with just one fully functional arm which fingers chords and notes, while his half-formed right arm strums the strings with a small thumb-like appendage. He has become a virtuoso on the instrument, and like Sakuma, has overcome life’s setbacks by learning how to play the ukulele.

Nick Acosta

Over the years, Sakuma estimates the Great Waikoloa Ukulele Festival has received over a million dollars in instrument donations from various manufactures. This year there were $5,000 worth of ukes up for grabs in a free drawing. For entertainment, twenty performers were spread out over three stages between the King’s Shops and Queens’ Marketplace. Many of the Festival’s entertainers also had life-changing moments when first exposed to music and the ukulele.

Brian Pi’ikea Vasquez

Brian Pi’ikea Vasquez, dubbed “the Hawaiian Santana,” is a ukulele master known for his take on rock and roll and R&B tunes. “When I first heard the Peter Moon Band Cane Fire album, that’s when I decided to start getting serious about my music. At the time my wife was working for her mortgage company, and she’d join me when I played festivals on the West Coast. When we were returning, just about ready to land in Kona, I asked her if she wanted to shut down her company and do music full-time. She said yes, and since then we have our own ukuleles custom-made and sell them on the Princess Cruise shows we do. We do that about 7 to 9 months out of the year. We consider ourselves ‘Ambassadors of Aloha’ and try to spread the Aloha in the music and hula classes we teach on the ship. It’s a wonderful life!”

John Keawe

John Keawe is a songwriter and slack-key guitarist who was born on the Big Island of Hawaii. After a four-year tour in the Navy, Keawe returned home and was drawn to the sound of Hawaiian slack-key. “I remember getting out of the service and buying a Gabby Pahinui album, and saying ‘What is this?!’ Music was first a hobby, and then I wrote my first song… that was it! I got some recognition. People liked what I did and decided to write more. The more I write, the more I want to write. It’s important to learn from others, but make sure you make it your own style, so it’s you! You don’t want to hear, ‘You sound like ____.’” Keawe has been recording albums since 1993; eight were nominated for Na Hoku HanoHano Awards.

Brad Bordessa

Brad Bordessa began playing the ukulele in 2005 at the age of 12 in Kona. After a few introductory classes he set off on his own to begin a mostly solo journey of musical discovery. “I remember the moment vividly. It was about 14 years ago, and I was at a music workshop in Pahala on the south side of the island. Herb Ohta was teaching a student how to play “Sir Duke” by Stevie Wonder. I remember watching the lesson and was totally blown away. That was an “a-ha’ moment when I realized that you can play anything you want on this instrument if you’re cleaver enough. That’s when I decided I wanted to do this the rest of my life.” Bordessa has been teaching ukulele for 8 years and is currently the in-house instructor at the Hawaiian Cultural Center of Hamakua. He has released one album, one Ep, and a single titled “Draw The Line at 13.”

One of the final events for this year’s ukulele festival featured 52 ukulele players, mostly from Sakuma’s workshop, coming on stage to perform two songs for a crowd of about two hundred people. The six-hour event ended with a performance by Herb Ohta Jr., son of the legendary ukulele artist, Ohta-san.

When not organizing the ukulele festival, Sakuma and his wife, Kathy, run four ukulele schools on Oahu, and  established Ukulele Festival Hawaii, a nonprofit charitable organization. Sakuma speaks regularly at schools, churches, and other organizations on behalf of his nonprofit, and offers free lessons, college scholarships and donations of ukulele to underprivileged children.


To learn more about Roy Sakuma’s ukulele lessons, music, concerts, and festivals in Hawaii, please visit: https://www.roysakuma.net

Steve Roby is a music journalist, best-selling author, and from San Francisco. He’s been featured in the NY Times, Rolling Stone, and Billboard Magazine. Roby is also the Managing Editor of Big Island Music Magazine.

Photo credit: Steve Roby

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