Bob Brozman, Cyril Pahinui and Led Kaapana

NA MELE Bob Brozman, Cyril Pahinui and Led Kaapana


The late steel guitar master Bob Brozman is featured in a glorious gathering of guitar greats along with slack key masters Led Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui in this vintage episode on NA MELE. The three players perform in various combinations in jam session style. Bob Brozman also performs three solos, including a tribute to steel guitar pioneer Tau Moe.




An encore presentation of a performance from the PBS Hawaii studios by this multi-Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning group comprised of Kale Hannahs, Ryan Gonzalez and Chad Takatsugi. They combine sweet harmonies with tight instrumentals to produce enchanting traditional Hawaiian music reminiscent of years gone by.



Keola Beamer


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 18, 2008


Writer, Composer & Slack-Key Guitar Master


Keola Beamer, the popular and gifted writer, composer and Hawaiian slack key guitar master says he ready to talk – for the first time publicly – about the passing of his mother, Aunty Nona Beamer. And he wants to talk – for the first time publicly – about surviving prostate cancer. It’s an emotional and revealing Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.


Keola Beamer Audio


Download the Transcript




He’s a writer, composer, Hawaiian slack key guitar master and, along with his brother, was a key player in the Hawaiian cultural renaissance of the 1970s. Today, Keola Beamer is collaborating with musical artists from around the world to combine sounds and textures, effectively creating a whole new musical genre. And Keola Beamer is also a cancer survivor – something which he hasn’t spoken of publicly, until now, on Long Story Short.


Aloha no kakou; I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. When Aunty Nona Beamer passed away in April of 2007, Hawaii lost a cultural icon a teacher, a composer, a hula expert, a champion of Hawaiian values. Today, Aunty Nona’s elder son, Keola, continues composing and performing traditional-Hawaiian and contemporary music and the Beamer family tradition of storytelling.


Well, being a part of the Beamer family was just a wonderful experience growing up, with my grandparents and my mom. We were raised on the Big Island, primarily, at my grandfather’s ranch in Waimea. So it’s very beautiful up there, very remote, no electricity, beautiful, cold, clean water that came down from the mountain.


No electricity; so how—




Howd you do your meals?


Kerosene. Yeah; kerosene refrigerator, kerosene lamps. And when I smell that kerosene smell once in a while. It really takes me back to those days when we were growing up. Used to be number six in the bath tub line. [chuckle]


Who else was using the—


Well, my cousins. And so we were all kinda raised together up there. My mom was a single mom. So she raised my brother and myself pretty much on her own, and with the help of my grandparents. So a lot of beautiful memories. I wrote some music about those days and growing up, the beauty of Mauna Kea, the mountain so alive, so present in our lives every day. Beautiful, haunting memories.


I haven’t heard very much about your dad.




Did you know him?


Not really; he left before my brother Kapono was born. And my brother and I are about a year apart, so we didn’t really know him very well. And years later, we met him, and he seemed like a nice man and everything, but we didn’t have much in common, ‘cause so many—you know, so much time had passed. I think I was thirty-six when I met him for the first time.


Did you feel abandoned?


No, I wouldn’t say abandoned. There was so much love and support from our family that we really didn’t know that’s not the way it was supposed to be. You know, we just had so much love and aloha from our grandparents and mother.


You had a father figure in the form of your grandfather.


Pretty much; yeah. He was a wonderful man, and taught us how to ride horses, and you know, rope and—pretty outdoor lifestyle up on the ranch.


Whats your first recollection of music in the home?


We were pretty much surrounded by it all the time. This was a family that was very versed in the hula, primarily, so you know, many hula recitals, and so there was a lot of music. And it was in the context of living itself. Like now, maybe we’ll go hear some music somewhere, or people will go, Let’s go hear some music. With us, it was there, you know. So you’d wake up in the morning, Sunday morning, hear the rustling of papers, somebody reading the paper, and the ukulele, then the music begins. And lot of family parties. You know, Auntie so-and-so always had this kind of interesting hula, and Uncle did this.


And Now, I know a number of girls in your family dance hula; I think all of the girls in your family dance hula.


Right; right, yeah.


What about the boys?


We were the problem children in our family. [chuckle] For some reason, the women were the carriers of the culture, dating back many, many years and many generations. My great-grandmother, Helen Desha Beamer, had to teach hula in secret, because you know, it was frowned on back in her day.


And she was also a prolific songwriter.


Oh, beautiful composer, wonderful artist. Sometimes I feel my own work doesn’t even come close to touching the hem of her skirt. She was amazing.


Did you work with her on any music?


No; because she died when I was about a year old. So I didn’t have that chance.


But you grew up hearing her music because it was kept alive in the family.


Yes; and still is. Yeah. She’s revered in our family.


How much did your mom influence you in music?


Quite a bit. And I’m amazed at how often over the years we were more than just mother and son; we were collaborators and best friends. And kupuna and haumana, and so I’d often consult her on the smallest detail of a song. You know, sometimes it’s kauna, the double meaning of things. So it’s not surface as it first might appear. So you need that kind of undercurrent of knowledge in culture in order to really interpret the work and understand that. We believe, as the Beamer ohana, that you really should try to follow the intent of the composer. You know, what does the song real—what is the composer trying to do, what is the composer trying to say. And by following that intent, you are often led in some very interesting and beautiful directions.


Which frees you to change the music?


Frees you to interpret it in a pono way, with a heart that feels like you’re doing the right thing with it.


Keola Beamer has shown that he understands intention, composition and culture. He’s written and arranged traditional and contemporary songs, published a book of short stories and begun exploring and creating a new, collaborative, musical genre. In the late 1970s, Keola collaborated with his brother, Kapono Beamer, writing and recording music on the leading edge of what became known as the Hawaiian cultural renaissance.


The time was right. You know, it was the renaissance of Hawaiian music, is the way it’s referred to now, where kids, all of a sudden, they were proud to be Hawaiian. Me too, you know. Maybe before that, not so proud to be Hawaiian. But the music helped us remember that, you know, we had something to say, and it was important, and so groups like Country Comfort, and C&K, and in those days, Sunday Manoa, Olomana—you know, this music was fresh, and it was being created by our feelings, our relations to the world at that time, and it really struck a chord with the young people in Hawaii.


Before you and your younger brother, Kapono were performing at Territorial Tavern—




–I imagine you’d done music together informally most of your lives. What was your relationship like? Did you try to boss him around, or was he the smart-alecky younger brother? What stereotype applies, if any?


[chuckle] Thank you for that question.




Yeah; nothing like stereotypes.




I don’t know. I guess I was kind of the leader, I guess, being the older brother, and stuff. And you know, we did a lot of things. There was a lot of pressure. And you know, there’s two types in the music business when it’s difficult. Lack of success and tremendous success; and both those things are fraught with complication. But for the most part, you know, we had a nice run, had a great time; enjoyed it.


And I’m sure you hear all the time, ‘Gee, you have a wonderful solo career.’ ‘So, does your brother…’ ‘But I wish you folks would play together sometimes.’


Yeah. It’s yeah, kinda like—the way I would put it is we never lost our love for each other. I mean, we are blood brothers and we love each other. But we lost our love of working together. And in this business in particular, you have to love it. Because then you just if you don’t love it, it’s work. You know, if you love it, it’s not work. And the best music comes from love. We were just tired of the idea of working together. And personally, too, it seems, you don’t have a lot in common, even though you love each other. We’re different human beings, and that’s okay. You know, that’s fair. We don’t all have to be alike in this world, so you know, we try to make space for that.


Im sure you knew I would ask you about this. Do you get tired of it? Because I’m sure a lot of people ask you, or you know, they’re thinking about it.


Yeah; I get tired of it. I mean, it’s been a lot of years,


But I’m sure you relate to Cecilio and Kapono, in that sense.


Yeah; and Robert and Roland. But I’ve been in the business so long, where I know that these projects are like stepping stones. You know, you do one, and then you work very hard, and you do another. But what is really interesting is the water that runs between the stones, the wonderful things that music brings into your life, the great places where you can go because of the music. Music brings people together, and makes beautiful experiences. So it’s often not the business of music that’s anything interesting to me; it’s what happens between the business and music.


You know, you’re such a wonderful musician, but you’re also very good with words. And of course, you’re a writer; you’ve done a book of short stories. What are some of the artistic expressions and ways you express yourself creatively?


I think for me, there’s an interesting Hawaiian word; kuana ‘ike. It means cultural paradigm, yeah? So I sort of view the world through a Hawaiian cultural paradigm. It was a gift from my ohana, right? So I may see things a little differently than somebody else with a different paradigm may see something. So I find it’s a really interesting world view. I’ve been exploring Buddhism lately, because I’ve seen many parallels between Buddhism and our Hawaiian culture, and for instance, the idea of a Hawaiian sort of philosophical thought is that within each individual, there is a bowl of light, a beautiful bowl of light. And in Buddhism, that may be called Buddhist nature. There’s a Buddhist nature in each human being, there’s a bowl of light in each human being. And you can extinguish that light, or dim it by placing in the stones of aggression, anger, ignorance; and the light dims. And in Buddhism, that may be called, perhaps, bad karma, you know sometimes they call it the three poisons, anger, greed. The idea that Buddhism embraces other cultures, other religions even, and that we should have compassion for one another; we call that aloha. So I find that really sort of interesting common grounds between the two, and that’s why I kinda want to learn more about it, and study it more. Because I find that an interesting way to view the world, and a very helpful way.


Would you say you are a Buddhist?


Yes. Yeah.


And that’s just in the last couple of years?


Yeah. Like everything else, music brought that to me, where I played for the floating lantern festival two years ago, and as I sat there with the Buddhist priests, and I understand—you know, I began to understand their reverence for ancestors—same like ours, yeah, in the Hawaiian culture. And I realized, you know, what wonderful and interesting people they were. It wasn’t like a gig at all. You know, I thought I was just gonna play a gig, but it wasn’t. It was a very moving experience. And then this year, I floated a lantern for my own mother. I wasn’t anticipating that would happen. But that’s life, you know, so I lost my mom, and I put that lantern out in the ocean, and watched it disappear.


Here’s a quote attributed to Buddha: “Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” When we invited Keola Beamer to join us for a conversation on Long Story Short, he said he wanted to speak publicly, for the first time, about his personal battle with prostate cancer. And he said he might be ready to speak openly, for the first time, about the passing of his mother, Aunty Nona Beamer.


As we speak, it’s been a few months.




And I know you go through different stages of grief. What are your thoughts now, six months after she passed?


Yeah. Well, it’s very—I’ve not known grief like that in my life. I didn’t know that that was possible to love somebody so much, and then they’re gone. But the grief sort of reminds me a little bit of when I was a young man, surfing, and you’d sit out there on your surfboard, and everything would be okay, and then this set would come in these big, towering waves. And grief is like that; you’re doing pretty good, and then the grief comes in, in waves, and you do your best and you deal with it. And then another set comes, and this continues for a while, you know. Because my mom was a revered Hawaiian cultural treasure, she touched many lives. And we as Beamers have to have the compassion for other people’s grief too; not just our own.


Hard to take care of them, when you’ve gotta take care of yourself too.


Yeah. That’s difficult. But we can do it. We have done it. My mom led a life that made a difference in the world; she made the world a better place. She touched thousands of lives and helped many, many students, and she left with dignity. How great, you know. I’d be so happy if that happened in my own life. I want to share a story with you that means quite a lot to me. The morning of her passage, Moana, my wife and I were in San Francisco. And I had this very powerful dream, and it was young woman, a beautiful young woman, vibrant, beautiful black hair. Just this unbelievable energy. And you also had the feeling with this woman in my dream, that she was a person to be reckoned with. You know. And I almost didn’t recognize her, but it was my mom. And she had just come to say goodbye.


Did you recognize that at the time, that she was saying goodbye, or did you figure it out later?


Figured it out a little bit later. I almost didn’t recognize her, because I was used to taking care of my kupuna mom, right, with the thin arms and the graying hair. But this woman was my mom, before my brother and I were born. And she was beautiful and vibrant; and the word that comes to mind is, joy. She was joyous. She had transcended the cocoon of old age.


M-hm. M-m. You know, speaking of passing. You had a health situation which probably caused you to think of the possibility of you passing.




And people don’t realize that you had prostate cancer.


Yes; about five years ago, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. That was a difficult time in our lives. Yeah; you’re just going along, everything seems fine, and having a great life, and all of a sudden, boom, you know. Sitting in the doctor’s office, and you hear the word cancer, and it’s about you. You know. In a way, we kind of have a saying, my friends and I; it’s an old Pidgin saying called, NCH. No can handle. You know, so when you hear that, it’s very close to NCH, you know.




You kind of—I found myself kind of disappearing and looking from a distance, down at the doctor and myself, and he’s telling me this stuff. So in a, you know, in a very interesting way, this shapes your life to brush against your own mortality—helps you realize what is important, and what is not. You know. I found myself really appreciating things like sunlight, about—I found myself wanting to be with my wife, wanting to be with my friends. It wasn’t about wanting to go the office and do some music, licensing or something. [chuckle] But it was more about being with the people you love, and the ocean, and the sun. And I think that, for people that you know, have this kind of challenge in their lives, I think it’s important to try to stay positive. Because you know, this sort of idea of cancer places this matrix of fear over our lives. I think most cancer survivors and cancer patients know that fear. And we have to kind of rise above that, because you know, there’s still life, and there’s still joy, and there’s still a future if you’re, you know, lucky enough to catch it when it’s—in the early stages of development, which was my case. Yeah. So I’m kinda fine now. In five years everything seems to be working properly, and happily enjoying my life. Medical technology is amazing.


Listening to you just now, I thought of something your mother said to me when we talked a few weeks before she passed away. She said that she’d just come out of a major health scare previously, and she said, There’s nothing like going through that to just wipe away any pettiness—any small stuff in your life.


Yeah; yeah.


It’s gone.


Yeah; exactly. You know, you’ve heard the—I’ve heard this before, that cancer is a blessing. I remember the first time I ever heard that; I said, What kind of BS is that? How can cancer possibly be a blessing? But in actuality, it was for my life. I know that sounds so strange, and so counterintuitive.


Well, what do you do now differently, that you didn’t, or wouldn’t have done then?


It just kind of cleared away the detritus of my life. You know, it made me realize, you know, it’s so—I used to feel so guilty if I said no about playing a gig that I didn’t really want to do. You know, I’d just feel so, oh person wants me; oh, guilt, guilt. But now, I just say, you know, I’m sorry. It’s not what I want to do.


Life is short and—




–you’ve gotta focus.


Right. So I think I’ll choose the things that I love now, and be a little bit more, you know, happy to do that,


Another saying associated with Buddha: The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, nor to worry about the future, but to live the present moment wisely and earnestly.” Speaking of quotes, I asked Keola about one I found that’s attributed to him.


There’s this wonderful quote; I have to ask you if it’s true, because it just makes me laugh. You, after some experiences playing in hotels and having people expect the kinda music that you really didn’t want to play, you said, Let’s see. You encourage tourists to ask about slack key; there are festivals several times during the year, usually for free in public parks. Write on your guest comment card, I would like to hear some real Hawaiian slack key guitar in this hotel. Say no to tourist pabulum. If someone plays Sweet Leilani at the restaurant, blow chunks and eggs at the premises. Change the world. Did you say that?


[chuckle] I think so.




You—don’t—I don’t. I’m sorry. I apologize for the humor of that. You know—


Dont apologize; it’s funny.


It’s basically a situation of kind of trying to create more knowledge about the Hawaiian culture, and about its music. For many years, people thought the Hawaiian slack key guitar and the steel guitar were the same thing. You know. So we’d, you know, when people said, What kind of guitar do you play? Oh, is that nrr-nrr one? No, it’s not. You know, two different things.


And it’s chicken and the egg. If Hawaiian musicians present this music, why shouldn’t tourists think that that’s what it is?


Right. Right; exactly. Yeah.


I know you’ve had arguments with others, say, in slack key—


Sure; sure.


–guitar, about how much innovation there should be. I mean—




–do you keep it pristine, just as it was, or do you add your own touch? What’s the answer?


Well, that is an argument that has continued through the years; similarly, in blues or other forms of music. There are the traditionalists who really—I play the way I was taught, that’s just the thumb, and the index finger, and that’s it, that’s it. I personally am old enough to have met Auntie Alice Namakelua; I was one of her students. And she thought that the next generation—Uncle Ray and Gabby, she thought those guys were radical. Those guys were putting in jazz chords and stuff. She goes, Tchah! That’s not the way, you know.


So she thought Raymond Kane would be a radical. But do you consider him a radical? Aren’t you the



Yeah; I guess I would not consider Uncle Ray a radical. You know, he was kind of a traditionalist. But to her ears, yeah?




She had that definite pattern that she was taught by her brother, and that was what slack key should sound like. Didn’t have all these kind of interesting chords that you know, came in later. And so I think that as artists and human beings, you know, I am not a museum piece; you know, life changes, and language changes, and tastes change. So we try to respect the music of our kupuna, and love it, and cherish it, and remember them. We remember them by their tunings, what they played. Without them, you know, these beautiful shoulders to stand upon, our way would have been much, much more difficult, you know. So we revere them, we appreciate them; Uncle Ray, Gabby, awesome people, beautiful musicians. By the same token, we have our own DNA and our own musical ideas, and we should be allowed to express them, yeah.


Are there things going on with Hawaiian slack key now, ki ho’alu, that you don’t really appreciate?


I think there’s been an over-commercialization of it to a certain extent. You know, because it has been successful. I don’t really spend much time thinking about that kinda stuff, but prefer to go on my own path.




I think the idea is that artists can sort of transcend boundaries, yeah? We can hopefully, with language of music, this beautiful inclusive language of music, we can work together in creating a global village and make the world a better place. You know. Make it a more interesting place. Tear down some boundaries between human beings, you know. So the idea is that we can transcend these boundaries through music if we work hard at it, in collaboration, working with each other. I’ve learned a lot about collaboration over the years. I’ve done a number of projects that have been fascinating to me.




Eclectic would be a very good word. I did a project—I think it was the year before last, in Amsterdam, with a Javanese gamelan orchestra. And those guys don’t even have a Western scale. You know, so it was interesting to try to combine the elements that we have in Hawaiian music with the Indonesian elements, and then create a new piece, which is essentially a new sound, never existed before. Likewise, I’ve been blessed to work with musicians from Europe, from Asia, trying different ideas.


Do you find that people are open, or do they know what they like as soon as they hear it, or they don’t like it? Do people give it a chance?


They do. Yeah; they do. This, you know, eclectic music that I’ve been involved with; very strange, very different, not your commercial path; but people—yeah, it’s interesting. It’s different, it’s interesting.


And you learn a lot about other people’s cultures as well.


Oh, absolutely. It’s an interesting journey to try and collaborate, create something different that never existed before.


It’ll be revealing to see (and hear) what comes of Keola Beamer’s collaborations with musicians from other cultures just as it’s revealing to hear him speak about joy and blessings juxtaposed with stories of grief coming in towering waves. Stories like these, that reveal character and life choices, have great value and we so enjoy them bringing to you on this program. At PBS Hawaii, our mission is to inform, inspire and entertain; and we try to do that each week on Long Story Short. Mahalo to Keola Beamer for sharing with all of us. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


Do you think you’ll see your mother again?


Yes; yes, I do. I feel pretty confident about that. And my grandparents, and …


What are you gonna say when you see them?




[chuckle] Eh!






Ku‘uipo Kumukahi


Original air date: Tues., Oct. 29, 2013


Ku’uipo Kumukahi’s father once told her: “You go make them happy.” They are words that the Na Hoku Hanohano award-winning singer still lives by through her music. In this conversation with Leslie Wilcox, Ku’uipo remembers how family gatherings inspired her to pick up an ukulele for the first time, and shares her passion for keeping traditional Hawaiian music alive.


Download the Transcript




My mother always said this: When you do something, you put a lot of love into what you do. And when you give, you give it freely. You don’t expect anything to come back. Mama always said that. And my dad always said, especially with the music, he would say: You, you go, go make them happy. Those very simple words lasted ‘til today.


Ku‘uipo Kumukahi has been making people happy with her music since she was a teenager. But her motivation goes beyond just entertaining. She believes in preserving history through mele, songs that document places long gone that continue to live on through her singing. Ku‘uipo Kumukahi, next on Long Story Short.



Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Ku‘uipo Kumukahi has received multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Awards that recognize and honor her achievements in perpetuating Hawaiian music. Her love of Hawaiian culture started at a young age, growing up on land that her family has lived on for generations.


There was just the three of us, ‘cause I’m the only child. And because it was just the three of us, my friends were my dogs. So, we always had dogs around the place. And there was always something to do; never bored. We played in the yard, threw the ball, eat the guavas that were there, and running in the sugarcane field and chopping the sugarcane, and sucking down that sugarcane. Go down to the river. Lot of times, they’d come home wet, because they were chasing frogs, and I’d go with them. And sometimes, friends would come, and so we’d go together, and we would be able to go look for opae, river opae and sometimes that hihiwai. That’s what people on Molokai


Oh, the snails?


Well, yeah, the freshwater opihi. But we call it in Hilo, wi. And wi is the Hawaiian name for famine. So, I’m not sure that that’s the stuff that they were eating back then when there was really no food available. But, the rivers were filled with opae and this wi. And so, we’d go down there and we’d go get, and come home.


Are there still opae in the mountain stream over there?


Well, no, not really. There was an issue of prawns being put in the river for some aquaculture, I think, which kinda wiped out all the opae and the wi.


But when you were a kid, I mean, everybody wanted to go get opae in the streams, and there were opae to catch. But not anymore.


Not anymore.


People just don’t grow up with that knowledge anymore.


And you don’t see it at luau’s anymore. Back in the day, in the luau you had the opae, and you had the aki which is the liver, and all these other things that you don’t usually find today. And I miss them. But I don’t know if kids know how to eat that anymore. But that was fun. That was the pastime, and it was better to do that than go to school. [CHUCKLE]


And did you get lonely? I mean, you had your dogs, you had your parents, but did you feel isolated?


Not really. I always had yearning to go home, even if I was at school and I had my friends at school. We all did at school, but there was always time to go home. I wanted to go home; I was never forced to go home. I just want to go home.


Are you still a homebody?




You’d rather be home?


I’d rather be home.


You’re an entertainer, and you would —


I’d rather be home. Yeah. I mean, I love the entertainment, I love people, I love to see their faces. But there is that time that I just kinda retreat to home.


What is it about home that you love spending time in? I mean, besides just the chance to relax and be around familiar things.


When I go home to Hilo, it is pure grounding. There’s so much mana there that the rest of the world doesn’t exist. It’s just home. The kupuna are buried there, we have a church on our property, family is there. Everything still remains the same. My parents are buried at home, my grandmother and great – grandfathers. Everybody’s there. So, it’s just that sense of [SIGH] grounding. And you just can spiritually regroup, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile for me, and that’s why I yearn to go home.


Do you think that was a form of wealth?


I think so. Because I used to tell my mom. I said: Mama, we’re not rich like everybody else, we don’t have a lot of money like everybody else. She says: No, we don’t need, we have all of this; we’re rich with what we have. So, it gave me a sense of bigger gratitude and appreciation for what we have, or what I have, as opposed to what I don’t have.


And so, when you think about the wealth you have and what you grew up with, what is the wealth?


The the wealth is home, the land, to be amongst family, to understand the importance of caring for the land, caring for family members, caring for yourself, because you have to remain healthy so you can care for everybody else. Just to be humble in that. And that in itself is a kuleana, it is a responsibility, but it’s a good one. It’s not a burden; it’s just a privilege, it’s an honor.


And your father was a manaleo; he was a native Hawaiian speaker.


M – hm. Never spoke to us in Hawaiian at home, but words here and there. And I used to ask my mom how come he wouldn’t talk to us. And she said: Well, because they were taught that English was better, we should learn English.


Didn’t he not only grow up speaking Hawaiian, but it was exclusively Hawaiian for some of his childhood?


Yes; up until age eleven. He lived out in the country. So, everything he knew was fishing or hunting, learned from the grandfolks. And so, by the time he came to school — this was out in South Kona, Okoe, South Kona, and his mom was living in Punaluu, which is in Kau. And the school he went to was at Pahala. So, by the time this kid was coming in, he was already beyond kindergarten, and up until eleven years old, still speaking Hawaiian, but going to school. And my mom said all the kids would chase him, because it was such a novelty that this half – breed Hawaiian boy couldn’t speak English. So from there, it had to change. So, I don’t know what kinda teasing he went through, or any kind of negative repercussions he was getting, but it was full – on English immersion for him. So, that’s how he was able to switch over. I’m just grateful that I was able to learn Hawaiian, speak to my dad a little bit, listen to him, and understand what he was saying. And I think that kind of got us to get closer.


You talked about your mom wanting you to help people.


Her name is Florence. So, I used to tell her: Gee, Ma, I think you’re Florence Nightingale. Because she was a nurse, and she helped anybody that needed help. She was the nurse of the family, she was the helper of the family. It was just her way. And I learned that. Because when family needed help, I was the one tagging along. In fact, not even tagging along; I just had to go, because it was just she and I. Because my dad would be working out in Kona. And so, we would go together and whatever that took, if it was family who was sick, we’d take them to the hospital, take them to the doctor, and I was there. So, I understood all these things.


Was that a job, job, or was that just a kuleana? Was it a kuleana?


No, that’s a family kuleana. She just took it upon herself.


Didn’t she also have a paid job?


Oh, yeah; she was a nurse too, at Hilo Hospital. She really favored working with adults with mental illness. And she would bring me. And in fact, it started when she was at Leahi Hospital, here on Oahu. And the other nurses would be worried that this young girl in the presence of the adults with mental illness, wasn’t my mom afraid? And my mother says: What for? They’re just like us. My daughter shouldn’t be any afraid of this, at all. And so, it just was a part of me to be working with adults or be around adults with mental illness. And today, I work with adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s kinda full circle again. So, that’s Mama’s teachings.


Ku‘uipo Kumukahi’s idyllic childhood was interrupted when her family moved to Honolulu for a year. That’s when she started becoming interested in Hawaiian music.


1969, we were here on Oahu because my father got transferred. He worked for the Department of Transportation. He got transferred to Oahu to help finish the H1 Freeway and start the H2.


Oh, he was an inspector; road inspector?


He was a road inspector. So, we moved here, and it was here when my mom went to work at Leahi Hospital. We all transferred here. I went to St. Patrick’s.


Where did you live?


In Kaimuki, on Alohea Avenue. And it was funny, because my mom’s family, we were all living next to each other. It was our house, my mom’s sister and my mother’s brother. And that’s how things started up for me as far as music was concerned.


So until then, you weren’t playing music? You weren’t exposed to music?


I was. We had back in the day, those turntables, with the thirty – three records. I think my mother used to play this, album, The Halekulani Girls. And I used to just look at the picture, and all these ladies with the guitar and the bass.


Haunani Kahalewai?


No, this was Alice Fredlund, Linda Dela Cruz, and Sybil Bright. Sybil Andrews, Sybil Bright. So, Alice, Linda, and Sybil were these three women, and the picture was so nice of these women with their instruments. And I used to look at it and I used to think: What’s it like to play these things? I’ve seen them, I’ve heard them, but I’ve never touched any of ‘em. And so, when I came here, I had no friends ‘cause all my buddies were back home, and I had to make new friends. There was one ukulele in the house, and my mother’s youngest sister would come to the middle house on a Friday with all her gang from the newspaper, and they would … drink and play music. And I was little kid there, watching and listening. And everybody kinda sang the same songs over and over. So, if it was this Friday and this lady was singing, next Friday it was that lady singing these same songs. And then, I realized that when we weren’t with the friends gang, when we would go to Auntie’s house somewhere else like for Thanksgiving, they knew the same songs. And I was thinking: Then maybe I’m supposed to know the same songs too. So, after hearing it over and over, then you kinda start mimicking these songs, then you start learning the songs. So, after a while, it was all these songs that were very common amongst everyone. And when I finally found that ukulele in the house, and I picked it up, I was trying to be like my aunt with her ukulele. And so, my mom saw that. And there were these music songbooks that I think most families had in town, and they were kind of these cheap books, and they would have the words and the chords and the diagram. And so my mother said: Well, here; here, you can learn this.


You could see how to place your fingers?


How to put your fingers on the chord charts. And so, I would match it up and put my fingers on the ukulele. And I would see my auntie, and I would look at that, and I would go home and try to figure that out. And then, finally, my mother said: If you going play ukulele, you cannot only play, you have to sing. Don’t be like your auntie, she only play sometimes. She doesn’t sing too much.


You were ten or eleven years old at this point?


I’m ten; I’m ten. So, my mother says: Well, here, learn how to sing this song. I said: Mama, I don’t know how this songs goes. So, she picks a song she knows, she starts singing it, and she says: Okay, now you match your fingers and how it sounds to what I’m singing. So, I started picking up on what things sounded like and being able to play.


Wow. What a story.


So for me, that’s where that started. And then later on, my mother gave me this guitar. I looked at it and I said: I don’t know how to do this, this has too many strings and my hands are too small. She said: Well, there’s the book, and you can learn. [CHUCKLE]


When the family returned to Hilo after spending a year in Honolulu, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi’s mother made sure she kept up with her music practice.


The first thing she told me after we settled in back home about maybe a month later, she says: All right, I’m taking you to the music store, and we’re getting you an ukulele.


Did she think you had talent, or did she think it was just a fun thing for a kid to do?


No; I think she saw something. And it was because of her, really, that that’s why I play music today.


Was there a family tradition of music?


We had some family members who did play, but not like some other families who come from a lineage of musicians or kumu hula. No; that wasn’t in our family. Because my grandparents were ministers, so Hawaiian music or the secular music and the hula wasn’t allowed in the church. When we had the family luau, the reunions, our family would sing. We’d sing and we’d start off with church songs. The church songs that everybody knows today. And that just became ingrained, and ‘til today, I’m still singing those songs. And that’s just how it has been for many musicians, that they’ve learned from family.


So, you went back, and you were already pursuing music, but not as a career at that point.




You probably weren’t thinking career.


Mama said: Music is not a career. [CHUCKLE] It’s a hobby. [CHUCKLE] She would tell me, ‘cause she saw how I was really loving to go that way and just getting involved. So I learned how to play the guitar. And then, back that up a little bit. I met up with some people who could play, and I was fifteen years old. I joined the canoe club. And my canoe buddies, some of ‘em could play. So, we’d sit under the coconut tree and we’d play until the coach would yell out, Get in the canoe!




Oh, okay. Drop everything and run for the canoe. But from that kinda collaboration, then you kinda wonder: Wow, they know this, I know this and this. Well, let’s make a group.




So, that’s how you start collaborating. And then, other people know other songs, and you learn their songs and they learn yours, and you just exchange. And it just grew, and grew, and grew.


Was it always traditional music, or did you do other types of music?


Mostly traditional Hawaiian, as we knew traditional Hawaiian music. Yeah.


That’s interesting, because you could have gone another way. You could have gone contemporary rock, blues.


But somehow, the people that I met up with, that really wasn’t in their being. It was Hawaiian. Yes, they knew a few. And even myself. I mean, we knew stuff from a little bit outside of the Hawaiian music. But it always came right back to the foundation, and that was Hawaiian music. And it was always fun to do that. And then, when you really get to meet the people later on who actually made those songs popular, for example, Auntie Genoa Keawe making Alika very popular, it’s like almost hit the ground. I’m actually meeting this lady. It’s your idol you’ve come to meet and respect. So, to me, that was the biggest honor for me, to meet those people as well, and to know their music. And so, it just flourished even more for me. And so, after a while, after growing up, seventeen, eighteen years old, it was very hard to find a bass player in Hilo, so my mother went and she bought me a bass, and I learned the bass on my own. And now, I became the bass player of the group. And so, I could at least do three instruments, and that was fine. And I’m okay with that today. [CHUCKLE]


Ku‘uipo Kumukahi moved back to Honolulu in 1985, and has been playing Hawaiian music on Oahu ever since, both as a solo artist as well as with many notable musicians. Yet, she remembered her mother’s warning that music was not a career.


I had met O’Brien Eselu, and so when I moved here, he asked me to be a musician for his halau. And that’s when I started learning. In fact, that’s when I met Auntie Genoa and Karen Keawehawaii. And it was from that environment I got to learn what was necessary for hula. And then, I performed at a bunch of Merrie Monarchs with him, and then started going off on my own, and then met various people in my lifetime like Chris Kamaka and Del Beazley, Brian Tolentino, Greg Sardinha, and we all started playing music together in the Waikiki circle. Then we were musicians for Karen Keawehawaii, and then that just grew, and grew, and grew. Then, we started recording. And after the recording for me, then as a group, we kinda went our separate ways, and I started doing solo performances, and ‘til now with the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame Serenaders. And it’s just been a beautiful journey of Hawaiian music.


So, you said your mom said music is not a career. But you’ve played a great deal. Is it not a career? I mean, you do have a day job.


Of course, it is. Well, my mom’s school is that you gotta work for the State and be a retired State employee and, have the benefits, and this and that. And I think as time went on, she knew that the world has changed, and it’s not about just being the State retiree anymore, it’s about what you pursue and what you love. And so, I think that’s what she was trying to gear me towards.


But you sound like you listened, because you got a regular job during the day, which is administrative and then, you’re somehow managing to do night gigs.


Yeah. It’s part of that learning, but more importantly, I think it’s because economically, it’s very rough to be a musician in Hawaii.


You couldn’t have supported yourself with just that.


Mm – mm; no. I know there are a few people who do, but realistically, if you want to live comfortably, I don’t think it’s economically wise to just be a complete musician, Hawaiian music musician. You probably have to be diversified because it just doesn’t sustain you.


Even though you’ve been the female vocalist twice, and you had a traditional Hawaiian album of the year, songwriting honors.


Even so. I think keeping a day job, we always joke; in order to play gigs at night, we gotta have a day job.


In addition to the satisfaction that Ku‘uipo Kumukahi finds in sharing her artistic expressions through her music, she’s also carrying out a personal mission; to preserve and perpetuate traditional Hawaiian songs.


I’m real ferocious about Hawaiian music and how that needs to stay, and why is it important to be involved in making that stay here in Hawaii.


And you’ve seen a time when traditional Hawaiian music has just dwindled, especially in Waikiki.


Exactly. I say this to the audience all the time. Hawaiian music is just not entertainment. What we sing, we’re the vehicles that convey this message, this documentation of a time long past. All these songs that are sung document something, some event, someone, some place of this time that’s past. Like for example, songs like Maki Aailono [PHONETIC]; that doesn’t exist anymore in Waikiki. Where is Maki Ailono? Nobody knows. But the song documents this place.


What does the song say?


Well, it talks about this island that existed before the Ala Wai Canal was dredged. And so, it’s down by where the Kapiolani Park, Honolulu Zoo is. And the back story is that it was a place where people would frequent, young couples would frequent. But, once the Ala Wai was dredged, all the water was pulled out of Waikiki, and so now, you had all this dry land, and then the resort came up, the island is gone. So, that’s the kind of important documentation that still exists in these songs.


What do you think’s going to happen to Hawaiian music, traditional Hawaiian music?


I think if we don’t pay attention, I think we could lose it. I hope not. I hope this prediction is wrong.


Even with the resurgence in the language?


Even with resurgence in the language, because unless the media helps us out, television, radio, to really put forth traditional Hawaiian music, as well as contemporary. Because we need the younger people understanding how to write putting the music notations and making that palatable to the ear, ‘cause that’s what Hawaiian music really is. It’s very healing. And without the help of media, I think we’re gonna lose it. I mean, I think we are so displaced already, we are so scattered, Hawaiian music is something that binds us. That’s part of the malama. You have land, you gotta take care of it through the generations, so that it can stay with the family. Not just because now you’re tired of it. This stuff is really important for Hawaii. I cannot tell you enough. Like, Na Lani Eha; look at their music. Their music, as we discovered when we were doing the album Na Lani Eha in 2007, what other sovereign really wrote songs for their people?


And there were four of them writing it.




And they were very good songs, too.


And we’re still singing ‘em today, as long as you know. And if you don’t, then somebody would listen, and they’d catch up and understand it. But these little pieces of information are huge impacts on who we are as a society, and the culture, and the tradition. Hawaiian music in Na Lani Eha’s time, it was Hawaiian leadership to know how to write music. That’s not present today.


You performed at Iolani Palace, singing songs from Na Lani Eha. What was that like?


I can still remember it so clearly. To first being asked; that was a very wow factor for me. I was in the Throne Room, and it was so magical. Everything was alive for me that night.


That was a beautiful performance.


Oh; just so beautiful.


And so, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi continues to do her part to keep Hawaiian music alive through her artistry and commitment to perpetuating traditional mele. Mahalo to Ku‘uipo Kumukahi for sharing her deep passion for her culture. And Mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes Store, or visit


Auhea ‘o moani ke ‘ala

Hoapili o mi nei

A he aha kau hana e paweo nei

E ka makani Pu‘ulena


Kuhi au a he pono keia Au e ho‘apa‘apa mai nei E wiki mai ‘oe i pono kaua I ‘olu ho‘i au ke hoa



Roy Sakuma


Part 1


Original air date: Tues., July 15, 2008



Part 2


Hawaii’s Foremost Ukulele Teacher


When PBS Hawaii President and CEO Leslie Wilcox sat down with ukulele teacher Roy Sakuma recently, she thought she had a pretty good idea how the conversation would go. Roy would tell her about his family and his school days; and we’d find out how he became a teacher.


It’s no secret that Roy Sakuma dropped out of high school. But, during this Long Story Short, he explains why.


In the first of two parts of this very moving conversation, Roy Sakuma reveals – for the first time publicly – that he was raised in a home filled with mental illness. His late mother and brother suffered from serious mental illness. And Roy, his father and his sister suffered too, keeping the family’s secret and living with the stigma and the guilt.


Roy Sakuma Audio


Download the Transcript




Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Today’s Long Story Short features Roy Sakuma – a name that belongs to an ukulele studio, an ukulele festival, summer zoo concerts, an award-winning record label, Hawaii’s foremost ukulele teacher, and a man who’s lived his entire life hiding a family secret.


When I sat down with Roy Sakuma, I thought I had a pretty good idea how the conversation would go. Roy would tell us about his family and his school days. And we’d find out how he became a teacher. It’s no secret that Roy Sakuma dropped out of high school. And, as the story goes, he went to work for the City Parks Department and came up with the idea for an ukulele festival while cleaning restrooms at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand. But I had no idea why Roy Sakuma dropped out of school. Or that he’d reveal, for the first time publicly, that he was raised in a home with serious, untreated mental illness.


When you were little, was it obvious to everyone around you that you would go into music, and you’d be a teacher?


Oh; absolutely not. In fact, I think it was the opposite, because I can remember as a child, all the way through my years in intermediate school, I never listened to music. Now, you know, people may think that’s weird, but I was always outdoors. And being outdoors, you’re never listening to the radio. So for me, that was the last thing that I ever thought I would get into, would be music, and to be you know, teaching the ukulele. I was always involved in sport. That was my number one thing that I enjoyed the most.


What were your growing up years like?


Uh, it was difficult. You know, I went through a lot of pain, and I didn’t realize it ‘til years later, but you know, when I was born, my mother was diagnosed as—you know, she had paranoia, schizophrenia. And she had it severe. So I didn’t have a normal childhood. And growing up, it was difficult, because I couldn’t distinguish, you know, what was right and what was wrong; and so I developed a lot of misconceptions in life. And as the years went by, it only got worse, because my brother at nine years old also had a mental breakdown. So you know, our home was filled with a lot of difficulty. And so it was a struggle for me. And I think for that reason, I was always cutting out of school. I mean, you know, who cuts out of kindergarten? But I started cutting out from kindergarten and all the way through first through sixth grade; I was always cutting out of class?


What did you do instead of going to class?


I would just go down to the river and just hang out there, or I would come home and hide in the garage so that my mother wouldn’t see me.


By yourself?


By myself; by myself. Because um, I realize now that I was going through a lot of struggles. And these struggles naturally come up later in life. But at that time, you don’t understand it; so the only thing you do is, you’re more comfortable being out of that environment of school, because you don’t know how to relate to your peers. And so it really was difficult for me, but it turned out to be a blessing later on in life.


Was your dad in the home?


My dad was home, but because my mother and brother were both mentally ill, it was hard for him. I didn’t expect him to be home, because it was hard. You know, there was never any logical communication, so my father would go out every night and, naturally he enjoyed drinking, so he’d be drinking seven nights a week. I was happy for him, knowing that he was enjoying his life. I was struggling, it was okay; but I was happy for him.


Paranoid schizophrenia today is a very treatable disease. Was there medication available for your mother?


You know, at that time, way back, from what I understand, my father told me that they didn’t have or—what’s the word I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t take my mother to get any help, because at that time it was shameful. If you had this type of mental illness, and people around you knew what it was, it didn’t look good. So my father had to just, what’s the word? He is just to live with it. He did tell me years later, though, that he tried to commit her. But what happened is that no one would help him in the family, because my mother’s mother would not allow it.


I see.


She felt that was taboo.


That means your brother was also untreated when he had his—






We—my father sent him to the Kane‘ohe mental institution, where he received treatment. And he would get these uh, medications where they would release him. But the problem is that every time they released him, he had to go back in, because he would get another breakdown. And so it was a struggle, because—I remember when he was young—when I was young, he tried to kill me one time with a knife. And so ever since then—I was only like eleven years old—every time he came home, I would be—I couldn’t sleep in bed. You know, I’d be shivering, because I’d be afraid that, you know, in my sleep, he was going to do something to me and harm me. So it was a struggle, those years; it was very painful.


When you said you didn’t know right from wrong, how did that translate?


I think because there was so much anger in me, there was so much frustration, I felt like I was the only weird kid in the neighborhood, and how come I have all these emotional problems, and everybody around me looked so normal. And so it would be all this anger in me, and I would do things that were totally unacceptable, like you know, just things—not to hurt people, but things that were not appropriate.




Like, once a neighbor was yelling at me because we were making too much noise, and I cut down part of his tree. [chuckle] You know, because I was so upset. And yet, I didn’t realize that I was doing these things that—you know, it was just the anger in me that had me doing these things. And it was a very difficult time for me, because I didn’t know how to control this. And I think more than anger, it was the hurt I was feeling, the pain.


And there was no adult you could speak with about it?


There was no adult. And that’s why I developed all these misconceptions in life, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult—I think I was like nineteen years old; I decided that I needed to do something about this. So I went to a psychologist and talked to him. And that was a turning point of my life.


I’m sure it wasn’t easy for this local boy and successful businessman to speak openly about the family secret of mental illness. It took courage. Now that it’s no longer a secret, Roy Sakuma wants to use his story to help others. He wants people to know it’s good to seek professional help. That’s what he did, to help make sense of the impact that his mother and brother’s mental illness had on him. I hope Roy Sakuma’s story – which he’s revealing here for the first time publicly – will have a positive impact on other people’s lives.


Let’s back up a little bit.




You went through school cutting out.




Getting into trouble. How did your school career end?


[chuckle] I think I was in the ninth grade, and in February, I got caught for—you know, I was tardy a lot, I was cutting out of class. And so the principal, not suspended, but ejected me from school. So I was left out of school from February. So I missed the last four months of school as a ninth grader. And when I went back the following year to repeat, he actually told me, You’re going to high school; we’re gonna promote you anyway. So despite missing four months of school in my ninth grade year, I went to high school, which was Roosevelt High School. And I’ll never forget, because while I was there, the principal told me; he says, Roy, one of us has to go, and it’s not me. And that was the end of my high school career. [chuckle] That was it.


And all of this time, your mom remained untreated and—




And getting worse?


Yes. She was, you know, she was just talking to herself, and my brother, too, was—they both were talking to themselves. So it was hard for me. If you’re at home trying to do something, and you have one person walking behind you talking, and the person sitting across from you talking, it—you know, I learned to shut my mind off. I learned to shut—you know, in other words, I went into dreamland—




–so that you know, physically I was there, but mentally you know, I was somewhere else, so I didn’t have to hear all this. And yeah, I realized it years later that, you know, these were things that I had to cope with. And going to this psychologist helped me.


Did you get yourself ready for school, and kind of self managed?


[chuckle] Well, you mean, during those—


During those long years.


Uh, yes, but you know, when you say get ready for school, I was never in school, actually. You know, I would go, but I would cut out; go, and cut out. And it was just too much of a struggle for me. And I can share this now; I mean, before, I didn’t talk too much about this, especially being this deep into the pain that I had. But it was a really big struggle, and luckily, as the years went by, through this therapy, it helped me a lot.



How did it help you?


Well, I was able to share with him the misconceptions in my life. And I’ll never forget this, Leslie, because at the end, when I had spilled my beans out to him, you know what he told me? He says, You know, Roy, of all the people that have sat down across from me, you are one of the most sanest people I’ve ever had to talk to.


That must have felt good to you.


Yeah. And I say, Well, how can you say that? And he says, You were giving me the answers to your problems. And that made me feel really good. That really helped me. I realized that you know, I had all this misconception that I was totally mentally ill or crazy, or my thoughts were not normal thoughts. And so I was able to put my life together.


Well, how were you feeling when the Roosevelt High School principal said, That’s it, buddy, you know, one of us has gotta go, and it’s you?


[chuckle] Actually, inside, I was happy. [chuckle] Only because uh, I had such a diff—and see, now I realize the reason I had such problems in school is, I didn’t how to relate to people my own age; you know, ‘cause I felt so insecure about myself. So when I left school, it forced me to look for a job. And when I had to work, I felt that I could relate to adults, and I could pour my heart into whatever I’m doing. And that was a way of dealing with my pain.


Do you worry that you might get schizophrenia, that you might become mentally ill?


At that young age, yes. And I realized years later when I was talking to my sister, she felt the same thing; that sooner or later, we were both gonna fall into this mentally ill. But you know, fortunately, we didn’t; both of us were fine. But it was that fear that actually brought a lot of more pain and this so-called misconceptions, ‘cause you’re worrying about things that you shouldn’t be thinking like that, but there’s on one to tell you, Hey, it’s okay. You know, don’t worry, you’ll be fine. And so I didn’t get that reassurance that I needed.


And how’s your brother who had mental illness too?


Uh, he committed suicide. He jumped off a building. And so again, you know, you think, Okay, I’m next. You know, you worry about that. It becomes such a big part of your daily life, thinking about it, so you’re not very functional. Though on the outside, people think you’re okay. But it’s what on the inside, is that what I had to deal with a lot of these issues.


Did you feel you were putting on an act; I’m okay, for—


Oh, yeah.





Oh, yeah; definitely, definitely. I was good at that; I was good at that.


But I just wonder if people who are listening to this program, who have issues with mental illness. I wonder what you have to say to them?


I would say that if in your darkest moments that you can see something positive, which I know is hard; but if you just look around, if you look at the whole world, the devastations that’s happening, and you look at where you are; there’s hope. And as long as you have hope, then you have the first step of helping yourself get better. And I think too many times when we’re—see, when we have a happy moment, we take it for granted. You know, we’re happy; we’re happy. But when we have something that goes against us, that makes us a little sad or hurtful, we tend to dwell on it. And that’s what I try to teach people not to do. And that’s why it’s so important to have hope. Once you have hope you have the building block to help yourself in your life.


And your brother ran out of hope.


Yes; he ran out of hope. You know, I was much younger than him, and he was so smart. But you know, he didn’t know how to deal with his life and the pain that he was going through, and so you know, he did what he felt, which, had I known that, had I been older, I would have been able to help him. But I was too young when all this happened.


It’s estimated that mental illness touches as many as one person out of every four, which means it could affect nearly every family in Hawai‘i. But, for cultural reasons, financial reasons and other sensitivities, some families choose to keep their mental illness a secret. And for all these years, Roy Sakuma did just that. But now, he’s chosen to share his very real emotions, and offer his message of hope.


What are your thoughts, looking back at the mental illness that governed your life, on the part of your mom and your brother? You know, I keep thinking how treatable schizophrenia is, if the person has access to and is willing to take medication. What are your thoughts now?


Well, I realize that it is treatable. Because what happened is, I had to make a choice in my life once, and I wanted my father’s life to be better. And so I took it upon myself to committing my mother to the Kane‘ohe Mental Hospital.



Once you became an adult?


Yes. And it was very difficult, because you know, no one wanted to get involved with this, and rightfully so, because it was a very difficult thing to do. We had to actually have them come over and strap her down. Because I knew she wouldn’t go willingly. And I’ll never forget; as they wheeled her out of the house, she told me, I hate you, I disown you, and I will never talk to you again. And then they took her away. And I was devastated. But I knew this was something that I had to do. So, what happened is, through the medication that she took, eventually it came to the point where we could have conversations between each other, and with my sister, and she really changed a lot. I mean, the change was significant, where we actually had a mom that we could talk to. She wasn’t totally there, but she came a long way, where we could actually have simple conversations. So I’m very grateful for that. I’m very grateful that despite—you know, it was painful then, but the reward was twenty times greater, ‘cause now I could talk to my mother on a—yeah.


Were you able to share with her what you’ve been able to do with your life?


Yes; and you know, to some degree, she understood some things. But I had to keep it simple. But I think for me, the greatest joy was to see how much love she had for us as her children, and how much she, you know, respected our new family life. Like my sister was married, I was married to Kathy, and how she could enjoy that. She could enjoy not just us as her children, but the people that we committed our lives to. And I think that was really wonderful for both my sister and I.


It sounds like your mom probably said some really hurtful things to you, right?


Yeah; she said hurtful things to me. And um, she babbled constantly of things that weren’t relevant to life. And it was things that, you know, a person that’s not sane would say, like you know, and I don’t know if I should even say some of these things. But you know, our icebox, for instance, was empty. So all we had was a hotdog and eggs; that’s all we had to eat, every day. And she would cook the same thing for me every night. I mean, it was so difficult. I mean, she would wake me up two o’clock every morning to have breakfast. And so at eight o’clock, I gotta go to school. But you know, by then, my stomach’s churning, so I’d be embarrassed, and I’d cut out. Because I didn’t know how—a simple thing like my stomach churning embarrassed me, because no one told me it was okay. So I’d be cutting out of school in the first grade. But you know, it’s those types of weird things, where your whole life is out of balance, because she went by according to what she felt, which was totally—she wasn’t capable.



And did you hear hurtful things about yourself from her?


I did. You know, I’m gonna share something with you that I’ve not told anybody. In fact, only my dearest family knows about this. And you know, when she was trying to—well, maybe I should share it later. [chuckle] Okay; that’s okay, that’s okay.


No, no; I—




understand. You gotta make choices as you go.




You know, all this time, you’ve been very positive, and you’ve spoken of how you’ve made something positive out of something that could have sunk other people. You’ve turned it around. Do you have any regrets?


No; I have no regrets. You know, I look back on my life many times, Leslie, and I look at all the pain I went through, I look at all the sorrow, I look at all the hurt. I look at all the, you know, just things that were so painful to me. And I wouldn’t trade it; because through all that pain, today it’s given me an insight to people and children that I can help. And I have this strong yearning to help people, to want to always help. And I hope that I never lose— that’s something that I see in my wife too, and we have that. And I hope that we will never lose that love of wanting to help others.


So when you tell people, Oh, yeah, I was a kolohe boy—




You really weren’t kolohe; you were just in terrible pain.


Yes; yes, yeah. You’re right. Uh, through that pain, sometimes I did things that were naughty. But the important thing is that I never hurt people. And I think I learned that from my father. I mean, as much as my father wasn’t around—



–he was a great man; because everybody in the neighborhood respected him. See, we had a big porch; so all the kid—neighborhood kids would be on our porch all the time. And when he came home for a little while, they would all say, Hi, Mr. Sakuma. And he was always nice to everybody. He would bring home abalone and cut pieces for everybody. And so I just knew my father as this really nice man to my friends. Little did I realize that when he passed away, is when I find out all these things, where people that came to pay their respects says, Oh, your father was you know, this great man; he always treated people with respect. You know, Never did I hear your father say a mean thing.


And he lived with a lot of sadness too.


Yeah. And he taught me something at a young life. Number one, he told me two things.


He says, Number one, you know, don’t listen to your mother, because she’s mentally ill; she doesn’t know what she’s saying. So that helped me to some degree, but still, it was still difficult. And number two, he told me, Whenever you’re in a situation where someone is to get hurt, as much as possible, you take the pain; but you never give out the pain to

someone else. And I’ve lived by that. And when he passed away, one of the elderly gentlemen who came up to me says, Do you know your father’s in the book, The Battle of Iwo Jima? And I didn’t know that. He says, Yeah. So I bought the book, and I went to his passage, and it was so inspiring to me. Because as much as the Iwo Jima was such a hurtful battle, many people died, and all these comments about the bitterness of war. I read his comment, and he says—he talked about—can you believe this, the beauty of Iwo Jima. He says, Look how beautiful this paradise, look how beautiful. He saw past all the war, now; he saw past all the pain. He was talking about this beautiful place on Earth. And I realized, you know, that even in the dark times, or even for himself, he could see things that, you know, normally, we wouldn’t even comprehend. And you know, I was just so in awe that he could see these things in the midst of war.


Roy Sakuma is still learning to cope with the mental illness that shaped his life. Through the Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, Roy has taught thousands of students, young and old, to share the joy of music and camaraderie. The Ukulele Festival, which he started in 1971, has grown into one of the largest events at the Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand, with hundreds of participants from Hawai‘i, the mainland and around the globe. As the story goes, Roy dreamed up the international festival while cleaning bathrooms at the Bandstand as a City groundskeeper. I asked him to tell us the story behind that story.


My first job, I was a stock boy for Wilder Food Center. And I was a hard worker, and I put the groceries up, I mopped and swept the floors; and you know, I was totally happy. I was so happy doing that type of work. I thought I could do that my whole life. You know, little did I realize that later on, I would find the ukulele. But I went from stock boy, I went to—I can remember once I went to Kaimuki Typewriter, and I wanted to be an apprentice. So the guy says, Well, you know, you know anything about typewriters? I say, No. He gives me a thick manual and he tells me, Well, take it home and study it, and then we’re gonna test you the next day. So I go home; there’s no way I can read that. So I look at my old Remington—I think it was Remington typewriter, and I took it apart, figuring out how to take it apart; and then I put it back. So the next day, I go, and he says, Well, did you read the book? I said, Yup.




He says, All right; pick one of these typewriters and let me see if you can take it apart. So I went to the Remington [chuckle]; I took it apart, put it back together. I got the job. So that’s how I became a Kaimuki Typewriter apprentice. But you know, I somehow thought of that. You know. I’m not gonna read, but I’m gonna practice taking apart a—


And as it turns out, typewriters couldn’t be a lasting career.


Yeah; that’s right. That’s right. [chuckle] You know. But you know, it’s just going through these stages, it helped me. Helped me to mature, because eventually it led me to working in the City and County of Honolulu. I was twenty-one years old, and I went to apply for the City and County. Not having an education, the only job that I could get was a parks keeper. And I applied, and fortunately I barely passed the test. I became a groundskeeper for the City and County of Honolulu, and I was so happy.


Did you work in Kapi‘olani Park, where you would later have all of these decades of ukulele festivals?


That’s how it started. As a groundskeeper, every day we would have lunch at Kapi‘olani Park Bandstand, and you know, we’d be looking at the bandstand, having lunch. And one day, out loud I say, You know, I’d like to put on an ukulele festival. And the person next to me was a white collar worker at City Hall, and he told me, Dreams come true. And that inspired me; those words inspired me to go after work, go down to City Hall and inquire, How do you put on an ukulele festival? That led me to Mr. Moroni Medeiros. And Moroni would help me for the next fourteen years. He became my mentor in my life. He was, ‘til this day, the greatest man that I’ve ever met.


Finding inspiration and a mentor are two of life’s lessons Roy Sakuma has learned. And he’s gone on to teach many life lessons as a gifted ukulele player, instructor and business owner. I’d like to thank Roy for sharing stories with us – especially the ones he hadn’t told before, about growing up surrounded by serious mental illness.


If you’d like information on mental health resources in our community, simply dial 2-11 or log on to pbs-hawaii-dot-org and download the transcript from this program. We’ll include some information there for you.


And please join me next week as we continue Roy Sakuma’s Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. A hui hou kakou.


When I go to schools nowadays and I talk to children, and I talk to intermediate school kids, I can kinda sense if some of them are having similar issues that I have, and you know, I can kinda talk to them in a way in which I can bring up some of these things so that they can relate to it, you know, bring it out where I’m not coming out too strong, and yet it gets them thinking, Hey, you know, there’s an option to how I feel. You know. And I try to do this in schools now when I talk to children.


Part 2



Aloha no, I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. “A terrible student.” That’s how ukulele master Roy Sakuma described himself on Long Story Short last week as he recalled his childhood attending public schools in Honolulu. He started cutting out of school in kindergarten. He was smoking at the age of six and drinking by the sixth grade.


He spent time in Juvenile Detention and he dropped out of high school. Today, the internationally acclaimed ukulele teacher and business owner Roy Sakuma visits schools to share his love of music and his message of hope.


For the first time, on last week’s Long Story Short, ukulele impresario Roy Sakuma revealed why he didn’t bother much with school as a kid. He explained that his late mother and brother suffered from serious, untreated mental illness. Roy, his father and sister lived with the family’s secret. Before we continue Roy Sakuma’s Long Story Short, let’s revisit his childhood in Makiki.


What were your growing up years like?


It was difficult. You know, I went through a lot of pain, and I didn’t realize it ‘til years later, but you know, when I was born, my mother was diagnosed as—you know, she had paranoia, schizophrenia. And she had it severe. So I didn’t have a normal childhood. And as the years went by, it only got worse, because my brother at nine years old also had a mental breakdown. So you know, our home was filled with a lot of difficulty.


Was your dad in the home?


My dad was home, but because my mother and brother were both mentally ill, it was hard for him. You know, there was never any logical communication, so my father would go out every night and, naturally he enjoyed drinking, so he’d be drinking seven nights a week.


Paranoid schizophrenia today is a very treatable disease. Was there medication available for your mother?


You know, at that time, way back, from what I understand, my father told me that they didn’t have or—what’s the word I’m trying to say is that he couldn’t take my mother to get any help, because at that time it was shameful. He did tell me years later, though, that he tried to commit her. But what happened is that no one would help him in the family, because my mother’s mother would not allow it.


I see.


She felt that was taboo.


That means your brother was also untreated when he had his problem?


No. My father sent him to the Kane‘ohe mental institution, where he received treatment. And he would get these medications where they would release him. But the problem is that every time they released him, he had to go back in, because he would get another breakdown. And so it was a struggle, because—I remember when he was young—when I was young, he tried to kill me one time with a knife. And so ever since then—I was only like eleven years old—every time he came home, I would be—I couldn’t sleep in bed. You know, I’d be shivering, because I’d be afraid that, you know, in my sleep, he was going to do something to me and harm me. So it was a struggle, those years; it was very painful.


And there was no adult you could speak with about it?


There was no adult. And that’s why I developed all these misconceptions in life, and it wasn’t until I became a young adult—I think I was like nineteen years old; I decided that I needed to do something about this. So I went to a psychologist and talked to him. And that was a turning point of my life. And I can share this now; I mean, before, I didn’t talk too much about this, especially being this deep into the pain that I had. But it was a really big struggle, and luckily, as the years went by, through this therapy, it helped me a lot.


And how’s your brother who had mental illness too?


Uh, he committed suicide.


You know, I keep thinking how treatable schizophrenia is, if the person has access to and is willing to take medication. What are your thoughts now?


Well, I realize that it is treatable. Because what happened is, I had to make a choice in my life once, and I wanted my father’s life to be better. And so I took it upon myself to committing my mother to the Kane‘ohe Mental Hospital.


Once you became an adult?


Yes. And it was very difficult, because you know, no one wanted to get involved with this, and rightfully so, because it was a very difficult thing to do. We had to actually have them come over and strap her down. Because I knew she wouldn’t go willingly. And I’ll never forget; as they wheeled her out of the house, she told me, I hate you, I disown you, and I will never talk to you again. And then they took her away. And I was devastated. But I knew this was something that I had to do. So, what happened is, through the medication that she took, eventually it came to the point where we could have conversations between each other, and with my sister, and she really changed a lot. I mean, the change was significant, where we actually had a mom that we could talk to. She wasn’t totally there, but she came a long way, where we could actually have simple conversations. So I’m very grateful for that. I’m very grateful that despite—you know, it was painful then, but the reward was twenty times greater, ‘cause now I could talk to my mother.


So often, people who’ve found success have had to overcome adversity and have pressed tirelessly to achieve their goals. That certainly is the case for Roy Sakuma. He worked very hard to overcome the confusion and self-doubt resulting from mental illness in his family and his disrupted and limited formal education. And when he decided to play the ukulele, he practiced and practiced until he mastered his craft.


You know, I know in the hands of a master, what an ukulele sounds like. But I have to say that I can’t play any instrument, even a kazoo.




But I can play the ukulele. It seems like it’ll adapt to whatever level you bring to it.


Yes. I agree with you; the ukulele, to me, is one of the easiest instruments to learn in the world; it’s perfect for anyone. And you know, like I’ve seen so many people that say—tell me, I cannot play, I am tone deaf.




And you know, I can prove them wrong. There is not a person in the world that I don’t think I cannot teach. And that comes from my upbringing. You know, because I struggled so much, because I had no musical sense, and I had to learn everything from phase one, all the way up. So you can come to me with ten problems, or you know. And as soon as I see you touch the ukulele, I can make the adjustments, just like; because I know already.


Because I think that was the foundation for me; being so junk on the ukulele. So when I see students that struggle, you relate to it; so you can work them through it. Had I been a gifted student, then I don’t think I would have been a really good teacher. Because I think a lot of—I wouldn’t be able to comprehend why are you having so much trouble.




So it turned out good for me that I was a lousy–[chuckle]–I think I was the worst student, ever.


[chuckle] You turned out very good.


[chuckle] Thank you. [chuckle] You know, a lot of people thought I was such an outgoing, friendly guy. But uh, they didn’t know that inside, I was really hurting. And I think this was right after when I got kicked out of school, um you know, I heard a song; I heard a song on the radio. And it was a song recorded by Ohta-san. And that song was the turning point in my life. Because what happened is that I went to see him to learn a little about the ukulele, and that took away a lot of my pain. ‘Cause now, I was focusing on something that made me happy.


Why did you go to see him based on a song? What was the song?


The song was called Sushi. I don’t know if you recall this; it was recorded in 1963. It became the number one hit in Hawaii; was for the Tom Moffat Show.


How did it go? I vaguely remember.


Oh, are you gonna ask me to sing? [chuckle] Oh, no. [chuckle] [HUMS]


That’s right.


And it was an instrumental. And I went to see him; I was sixteen years old at this time. And the wonderful thing is that—I want to share this with everyone; is you know how they say never give up your dreams? Well, at ten years old, I tried learning the ukulele, Leslie; I couldn’t. At twelve, I tried again; I couldn’t. At fourteen, my sister tried to teach me to hold G; I couldn’t hold the chord, I couldn’t strum. I had no sense of rhythm; because as I mentioned earlier to you, I never listened to the radio. So I couldn’t do it. So she told me, Give up. But when I heard that song, I was sixteen; I decided to seek out Ohta-san. I asked him to teach me; he started teaching me. And so I think I wouldn’t be teaching the ukulele today, had it not been for that song, Sushi.


Well, that took guts; a sixteen-year-old kid who’d been kicked out of school going to this ukulele virtuoso.


Uh-huh. One thing that I had, I was never afraid, though, to approach people, as much as I was insecure inside. ‘Cause that’s how I survived.




By not being afraid to talk to people, reach out and ask people questions. And yet, inside, I was just so nervous, you know. But I learned to deal with that and it’s been a blessing for me today, ‘cause I can help children.


I was gonna ask you; are you good at sensing when somebody is undergoing pain?


Yes; yes. I sense it. I sense it all the time with children, and even sometimes with adults. I don’t know why, but I feel it. And I can tell you stories where children were abused, and I would ask the children, you know, How’s your life? And they would say, It’s fine. But inside, something was telling me that they were hurting. And I would you know, kind of push the issue and talk to the school teacher or the counselor, the principal, and sooner or later, these children would come out and say, yes, you know, there were problems. And it’s just something—I think now I understand that because I went through so much pain, you can actually somehow sense pain in other people; you know, especially in children. Yeah.


When you started playing ukulele, I understand you practiced so much, you wore out the frets?


I wore out the frets. I practiced. This is like when I was sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old; I practiced eight hours a day, sometimes ten hours a day. Now, people think, Now, how can you do that? I could do that; I would practice and practice, and practice. And my goal was to beat Ohta-san; I was gonna become the best player in the world. But the funny thing is; the better I got, the more I realized how great the master was.




And I thought, Well, you know, he really is something special. And he told me one day; he says, Roy, do you want to come to the studio and just help me? I’m gonna teach this adult class. I said, What do I have to do? He said, Oh, just tune the ukuleles. And he comes in, teaches the adults lesson number one. And then he tells me, Oh, by the way, I’m going to Japan next week; you’re teaching. And I was petrified. I said, I don’t know how to teach. He says, No, just da-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da. Leslie, I went home and I applied the same technique that I used to learn the ukulele, and practiced for hours and hours every day. I would talk to the walls, I would talk to the kitchen, I would talk to the carpet, I would talk to the mirror, as if I’m talking to those adults. And you know, by the time I went in front of them, I was totally comfortable; and I taught them. And the interesting thing is when Ohta-san returned, Ohta-san asked me, Would you like to continue teaching those students? And I was so happy. And the students were happy, because they were comfortable with me too; so it was a win-win situation. That’s how I got into teaching. So my second mentor in life was Ohta-san.


And was it different teaching children, when you decided to expand and teach children as well?


It was a natural for me. Because I realized that I had such a deep love for children that once I was teaching children, there was an instant—like an automatic connection; I can’t explain it. But when I’m around children, it’s so easy to bring them up. You know, I can just walk in a room, I can walk into my room of instructors with students, or I can go to a school, and automatically I can feel the energy rise. And so I’m happy for that, that I can, you know, have this relationship with kids. But you know, adults; we have a lot of adults now. I find that there’s a great connection with adults, because they need this outlet where they have fun and just sing, and play and laugh. And so you know, it’s working both ways for us now.


Roy Sakuma and his wife Kathy have partnered in a number of successful enterprises: Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios, Roy Sakuma Productions, the annual Ukulele Festival, summer zoo concerts, CD, DVD and book sales, and school visits. It all began when Roy was an ukulele student himself.


All this time, you were taking ukulele lessons—


I was taking—


–from Ohta-san?


I was taking ukulele lessons after school. And in fact, I started teaching by then. I was teaching two or three times a week; I had about eight or nine students. And the love for teaching was getting stronger, and stronger in me; and that’s why I wanted to put on this event called The Ukulele Festival. Because people don’t realize, back in the 1960s, you know, if you asked people about the ukulele, they would say, Oh, that’s a toy. I mean—


Yeah; it didn’t get much respect, did it?


No. Ninety percent of the people thought it was a toy. And that hurt me, because Ohta-san was such a master.




And so the only thing I could do, and I thought was the best thing to do, was to put on an ukulele festival where we showcased the instrument. Little did I realize that now, the ukulele festival today is a big event; it’s an annual event and it’s been going on for years, and years and years.


It started in ’71. And how many performers did you have then?


I had about fifty.


Mm. And how many today?


Last year we had over nine hundred performers.




And a lot of students, lot of people from all over the world that come and perform in the event. And you know the beautiful thing; it’s free. So it doesn’t cost a cent to come down to Kapi‘olani Park and see the festival. And that, again, was a dream that eventually, when my wife started helping me in 1974, the dream was to keep the festival free. And ‘til today, it is a free event; and that is something that we are both so very, very happy.


I want to ask you something about your wife.




Here you are, doing well in the work world, but you’re damaged inside, you’re hurting still. I mean, you can’t make that go away. So the essence of marriage is intimacy.




How did that work?


Wow, wow. You know, the word love is so important to me. Though I was growing up in so much pain, that word was so special to me. And I had like two or three girlfriends over a period of my young life; I never told anyone, I love you. ‘Cause I felt love was such a special word. When I met my wife, she was nineteen years old, she was going to University of Hawai‘i. And I knew this girl was special.


How? Where did you meet her?


I met her through a blind date [chuckle]. Somebody fixed us up where she came along with my wife, and then I met my future wife and my friend; and that was the first encounter.


What did they tell you about her before they set you up?


They just said that she was a nice girl. And that’s all they told me.


And you didn’t say, Oh, what does she look like?


No; I didn’t say that. I mean, you know, I wasn’t interested in that. And but she was really attractive, you know. [chuckle]


And did you, or she know anything about what was to happen when you met?


No. In fact, we just met. And then you know, she went back with her girlfriend to work, and two weeks later I called her up. And this is interesting, because the Harlem Globetrotters were town, and it was a Friday. And I called her up and I said, Oh, would you like to go out and see the Harlem Globetrotters? They’re playing Friday night. And she tells me, Oh, I’m sorry, I have a date. So I says, Well, how about Saturday night? And she hesitates—


That didn’t phase you?


No. She says, Oh, I have another date. Okay. So Globetrotters play Friday, Saturday, Sunday. So I said, Okay; how about Sunday night? And she thinks, and she tells me, Okay. I mean, you know, what—because my life was filled—and I thought about this at times—was filled with so much rejection and stuff like that, when she said she’s busy Friday and she’s busy Saturday, it still didn’t hurt me. ‘Cause that’s not pain to me; that’s just like, hey, what if she’s honest, she’s busy. So I asked for Sunday, and she said okay. And so that was our first date.


And did you ever find out what your friend and her friend had told her about you before the blind date?


No, I never asked; I never asked.


Hm. Gotta ask.


[chuckle] But I know that she was special. And the reason I know this is because I think we dated after that, eight dates. And I didn’t—yes, I didn’t even hold her hand. Because I had so much respect for her; I didn’t want to do anything that would damage this beautiful relationship that was coming together. And so what happened is that as we were getting closer, now I knew this was the girl I wanted to marry. This was the girl that I wanted to marry, and I felt, okay, but you mentioned this–what about all the issues inside of me.




So I decided to tell her everything about my past; all the misconceptions, all the insecurities that are in me. I wanted her to know this; I want her to know who she was really marrying, at the risk of losing her. So over the next two or three dates, I revealed everything to her. I revealed my heart and soul to her; from the top of my head to the bottom of my foot, I revealed every insecurity, everything in my life to her. Do you know what she told me?




When all was said and done, she says, I never saw it as your weaknesses, I see it as your strengths. And it wasn’t until last year, when I was talking to a friend and I mentioned this, what my wife said, did I realize that she probably saved me that day. ‘Cause had she said, you know, we’re not meant for one another, you have too many issues, you’ve got to get your issues straightened out; had she said that to me, you know, it could have gotten me spiraling the wrong way.


But you were doing very well on your own.


I was doing very well. But that was like the icing on the cake. I mean, when she accepted me for all the faults that was in me, I um, I was able to get through it. And do you know what is interesting now? Those inner weaknesses have become my greatest strengths.


She was right about that.


Yeah. It’s helping people, it’s doing things to help others. You cannot take away what you went through. But you can now switch it around; and rather than dwell on the hurt that you went through, use it for the good of children and other people. And it’s something I think everybody that goes through this, when they turn it around, it becomes a really inner strength to help people. My wife and I always talk about this. If we have—and you hear this all the time—if you have nothing nice to say about someone else, don’t say it. Because treat the other person how you want to be treated. And that’s, that’s our philosophy in life, you know. You know, ‘cause I want people to treat me with respect; so therefore, I should treat people with respect.


Basic Golden Rule, right?


That’s right.


So hard to do, but so simple and true.


It’s so simple and true.


You know, you’re somebody who didn’t have a solid formal education because of the problems in your life.




But you’ve been able to become a teacher, an expert on a musical instrument, a business owner, and you’re even a music producer.


M-hm; yes, yes. It just happened, one thing after another. I think my wife deserves a tremendous amount of credit, that she was the one in 1986 said, Hey, Roy, let’s record Ohta-san. So that was our first record; and it won the Hoku for instrumental of the year. And she told me, Hey, we should open a studio in Kane‘ohe, which we did; and we should open a studio in Mililani, which we did. And so she had a lot of influence on where the studio was headed, both in the recording, both in the building of the studio where we could meet—we could reach now, more children. And so it just helped. In fact, we wrote a book on the ukulele. And I actually started it, you know, on my own, thinking I can do it. And it took me five years, and I couldn’t finish it. And she says, Where’s the book? And I said, Well, I’m still working on it. She said, Okay, give it to me; let me help you.




Leslie, we finished the book in four months. You see?




And that’s—you know, my name is out there, because it’s Roy Sakuma Productions, right? But you know, I can tell every person out there, honestly, that the success or whatever we do, it’s the woman behind; Kathy. And she doesn’t want to be in the forefront; she likes to stay in the background. But she is the, like the heart and soul of our company.


Did she have an ukulele connection before you?


No; not at all. But when I was dating her—and this is how small Hawaii is—she didn’t tell me ‘til months and months later that Ohta-san and her were first cousins.




I didn’t know. You know, so it was meant to be; it was meant to be. And so it’s just so, you know, it’s interesting.


You’re embarking on something new, and it involves something old. Can you tell us about that?


In 1970, as I was mentioning earlier, when I was hurting a lot, I was struggling, and I picked up my ukulele. And I started—this song came out of me, and it was you know, I’m not a singer, but it was something like—wait, now. [SINGS] I am what I am; I’ll be what I’ll be; look, can’t you see that it’s me, all of me. And it just poured out of me. And so I didn’t have to sit there and write the notes, write the words; it just poured out of me. That was 1970. And that song became a song that every single child in the ‘70s sang as an elementary school child. So you know, that was I Am What I Am. Little did I realize, this year as I go to elementary schools and teach that song, that the song has been a powerful tool for me to help children. ‘Cause it’s been my whole life to help kids; to help kids through their struggles. But it’s more powerful this year than ever, because as I go to these schools and I ask these children, What does, I am what I am, I’ll be what I’ll be, mean to you? This is what I get from children. One child will say, It means it’s okay who I am. Another will say, I’m special. But a lot of children will tell me this; It means that it’s okay to be who I am, and I don’t have to be who I’m not. And that is so powerful. And I realized that this song was meant for all—to share with everybody. You know, it’s okay to be who you are, and you don’t have to try and be who you’re not. And I think that’s a wonderful passage for everyone to kind of gravitate to. You know, so I’m very happy that I’m able to share this song with all the children today. So we got a concert coming up this summer where we do the Wildest Show in Town; it’s every single summer. And the concept is laughter, love, and hope; and at the end of each concert we’re gonna have the children and everybody, the audience, sing I Am What I Am. So I’m really excited about that.


And obviously, you’ve accepted yourself for who you are.




As you recall, Roy Sakuma says he was a terrible student growing up. Now, after learning so many important lessons in life, he’s a teacher in more ways than one.


Roy had not spoken publicly about the mental illness that shaped his childhood until he sat down with us for Long Story Short. I’d like to applaud him for his openness and for encouraging people affected by mental illness to seek professional help.



Jake Shimabukuro


Original air date: Tues., Mar. 12, 2013


Leslie Wilcox talks with internationally renowned ukulele phenom Jake Shimabukuro. Jake started playing the ukulele at age four and later found local success as part of music trio Pure Heart. Jake talks about pushing the limits of a four-stringed instrument, discovering the viral YouTube video that catapulted his solo career and settling into a new phase in his life: fatherhood.


Download the Transcript




I guess I’ve always had this vision from the time I was a kid. I would watch rock bands, people like Van Halen, or guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen. And you’d see these guys, they’re playing their instruments, and they’re like running all across the stage, and jumping into the audience, stage-diving, and just yelling and screaming. And I always thought to myself, Why can’t an ukulele concert be like that?


From a young age, he has pushed the boundaries of this tine, four-stringed instrument. Ukulele master, Jake Shimabukuro, next on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. In his relatively young career, Jake Shimabukuro has already redefined the ukulele as a musical instrument. His unique blend of traditional Hawaiian music, jazz, classical, funk, and rock has captivated audiences worldwide. He’s performed on national television programs like Jimmy Kimmel Live, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and even for Queen Elizabeth II of England. His star burns brighter than ever with sold out concerts and a number one album. But how did the humble boy from Kaimuki become an international sensation?


Well, tell me about your family.


Both my parents, they’re really great people. I mean, they were excellent role models, I think, for both, my —


You described both of them as easygoing, carefree.


Yeah; very easygoing, very carefree. Especially my mom. My mom is very carefree. My parents, they divorced when I was quite young, so it was just my younger brother and myself.


I usually don’t think of single moms with two kids as carefree.


Yeah; no. My mom, she’s, I think, a very special person. ‘Cause she had a very hard life growing up. She really did whatever she had to do. I mean, made every sacrifice she could, to make sure that my brother and I got the things that we needed or wanted, and …


Did she work more than one job?


Yeah; she worked several jobs, and a lot of the work that she did was late at night. She’d work in the bars, too, for extra money. And so, sometimes, she wouldn’t come home ‘til after 2:00 a.m.


So, you’d come home from school, nobody would be home, and then she wouldn’t be home until your were sleeping.


Yeah. So, it was just me and my brother. But she’d always have food for us waiting for us in the icebox. Whenever we would come home, we’d open up the fridge and we’d see like, shoyu chicken, or she’d make her curry or something.


And your brother, how much younger is he?


He’s five years, five years younger.


Bruce is five years younger?




And I take it you were close. You had each other for company in the afternoons and evenings.


Yeah; we were best friends. But of course, growing up because I was the older brother, I always made sure that he ate, and would do his homework and go to sleep.


And he accepted that?


Yeah, we just did whatever we had to do to help each other out, because I think that’s how our family always operated. It was like, we always just understood that we were a team and we all had to do our part.


Even when you’re away, you’re still a team.


Yeah; no, exactly.


What about your dad? How did the dynamic work when your parents split up, and you lived with your mom? How did that work out with your dad?


I think both my parents had a difficult time with it. But I think they both knew that it was for the best. And there were times when we’d stay with our mom, and then there were times when we’d stay with our dad, and it was always pleasant. It didn’t matter who we were with. And the thing that I always respected about both of my parents is that, now looking back, is that they never, ever, even after the divorce, even when they were separated, they never said anything bad about the other person.


Jake Shimabukuro studied under several ukulele instructors over the years, but his very first teacher was his mom, Carol. At the age of four, he started playing traditional Hawaiian music with his mother’s Kamaka ukulele, and later began lessons at Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios. Jake says that playing the ukulele also helped him cope with his parents’ divorce.


My first ukulele teacher after my mom was a girl named Tami Akiyama. She’s now Tami Omuro. But she was an instructor for Roy Sakuma’s ukulele school, and I think I studied with her for about five or six years. And she always made music fun for me, and she made me want to go home and play, and practice. Not necessarily try to … she wouldn’t put any pressure on me, to learn something. But she always inspired me and encouraged me to just play all the time.


And you played for hours sometimes, right?




Just hours, and hours.


I loved it. I remember just coming home from school, I would rush home from school just so I could play my ukulele. My mom wouldn’t let me take my ukulele to school, because she had a Kamaka, and back then, Kamakas were — I mean, ‘til this day, they’re still — I mean, it’s …


They’re heirlooms.


Yeah; exactly. Right. I still have the one that my mom taught me on, the ukulele that she had when she was a teenager.


So, you were conscious you were parted from your ukulele, and you’d rush home.


Yeah, I’d rush home, and take it out, and I’d strum the three chords that I knew. The D7, G7, C chord.


During his high school years, Jake Shimabukuro described himself as a shy person, and not the outgoing performer that he is today. Instead of performing as a solo act, he would often seek out musical groups to perform with in the Annual Brown Bags to Stardom talent competition.


I didn’t think that I’d have a future, playing the ukulele. So, early on, when I would perform and play with people, I would always accompany singers. I would find people who could sing, and I would play with them. So, even throughout my high school years, I always found other musicians and I would gravitate toward musicians that were amazing singers, or were songwriters, and I would learn from them. I would try to figure out how I can accompany them, or what I can do to contribute to the song.


And you liked the idea of ensemble and team. You didn’t see yourself as a solo act.


Oh, yeah. I was deathly afraid to go up on stage by myself and just perform. Probably, it wasn’t until maybe … was it my junior? Wait. Sophomore. Okay; anyway, my junior year, I entered. And what I did was, I was gonna play a song, and I got so flustered, ‘cause I was so nervous, and I just completely blanked out. And there I was, standing on stage, and everyone’s just quiet and watching. And I’m like, Oh, what am I gonna do? So without thinking, I started just strumming, and I started singing La Bamba.




And everyone just started yelling and screaming, and laughing. Whatever, right? And I just started having fun with it.


And it was the idea of La Bamba being such an odd thing to play on an ukulele.


Yeah; exactly. Right? And they were like, What is he doing?




And all my friends were just like, What is he doing?




‘Cause I’m a horrible singer. And I just started playing and singing. And then, Lanai Boy, I94 was sponsoring the Brown Bags to Stardom.


Okay; so he was the host radio guy.


So, Lanai Boy was hosting. And I remember, he was looking at me from the side, ‘cause you only have three minutes to perform. And he was kinda looking at me and trying to give me the cue; Hey, you gotta cut. And I looked at him, and I was like, No, I’m just gonna keep playing.




And I kept playing. And then, he came up on stage with his microphone, and I’m still playing. ‘Cause I think it was after minutes already, and he was just like, Okay, that’s great, you know, give it up.


But the crowd was loving it.


And everyone was just laughing, dying laughing, because I didn’t want to get off the stage. And I started playing, and I kept going, and kept going. And then, he started walking toward me, right? And then, I started kinda moving away from him. [CHUCKLE] And everyone was just dying. But he still remembers that, you know. Lanai Boy still remembers that, and that’s probably the day I realized that I enjoy performing on stage for people.


There was that chemistry with the audience.




And you just went with it.


I just went with it.


Jake Shimabukuro first gained popularity in 1998 as a member of the local band, Pure Heart. The trio was made up of Lopaka Colon on percussion, and Jon Yamasato on vocals and guitar. Their first of two albums won four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards and was named one of the top fifty Hawaiian albums of all time by Honolulu Magazine.


And we were just out of high school, so we were having a great time. I mean, we started out playing at coffee shops, and we would do birthday parties, graduation parties. We did a lot of graduation parties.


And why the name Pure Heart?


It was a name that Jon dad … we were driving in the car one day, and we were just thinking of names, and I think we were throwing words around, and we thought, Oh, yeah, like, ‘cause the music’s from the heart. But we’re so young and innocent, so we’re pure. And then we thought, Oh, Pure Heart. And it just stuck.


And it was a different sound, wasn’t it? Did you try for a different sound, or was that just reflecting who you all were?


No; well, I think we all had different influences. For me, and I think for Jon too, we were really into bands like Kapena and Peter Moon, and Kaau Krater Boys, and guys like the Sons of Hawaii, going back, and Hui Ohana. Those were the people that we listened to a lot.


As a member of Pure Heart, Jake Shimabukuro’s early recordings were mainly covers of previously recorded songs. After the breakup of Pure Heart and Jake’s second band Colon, he branched out into a solo career and began to develop his identity.


A dear friend of mine, Tracey Terada, who later became my producer for a lot of my early recordings with a band called Pure Heart, and a band called Colon, and then my first three solo records, he is an amazing ukulele player, and he was my teacher for many years. I guess he was kind of the last formal instructor that I had. But I learned so much from him, just about the instrument, how to develop style in your playing. Not just about how to play, but how to develop your own voice, your own signature, your own method, and how to cultivate that and really build.


That’s when you’re also developing as a person, too. So, that must have been an interesting subject, developing your own identity.


You know the expression, music is the universal language. And I remember thinking to myself, I think that statement falls a little short. I mean, I used to tell people that I think that music is the language of the universe, and I think everyone is born with the ability to speak that language. Because music is really just the language of human emotion.


Outside of Hawaii, the ukulele is often regarded as a toy or a diminutive instrument. Many perceive the ukulele to be capable of playing only traditional Hawaiian music. When Jake Shimabukuro performs, he pushes the limits of what defines the ukulele by showing off a wide range of musical forms from jazz to funk, to classical music, folk, and rock. Jake receives standing ovations from audiences who are thrilled to hear his dynamic and unique style of music.


I saw you performing in Washington, DC to kind of a jaded group of entertainment executives, and they were told that this ukulele master from Hawaii was coming out. And I saw them kinda look at their watches like, Okay, and after that, we have lunch. And then, you came out, and you just killed, you killed them. And I think they were on their feet, clapping well before you were ready to finish. I mean, you just blew them away.


Oh, wow.


Do you like doing that? I mean, there was not a big buildup before you came on, and an ukulele is an unprepossessing looking instrument. Right? You must see that a lot.


Yeah; I always joke with people and I tell them, One of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that audiences all over the world have such low expectations. And I think that I jokingly say that, but it is true. It’s so true. When you see someone come out with an ukulele, you don’t expect a lot of music to come out of that instrument. Especially when, there’s no singing involved, there’s no other backing instruments, it’s just four strings and two octaves. And I think people’s expectations of the kinda music that comes out of the ukulele, most people, especially outside of Hawaii, will think of Tiny Tim’s Tiptoe Through the Tulips. But you don’t expect to hear a lot of melody or pop tunes, or rock tunes.


You think you know what you’re gonna hear.




But then, when you play, we don’t know what we’re gonna hear.


Which is kinda nice, because it has the same effect as going to a magic show, in a lot of ways. Right? You’re there, and he comes out, and like, What’s he gonna do? What? What’s he doing? And then all of a sudden, all these birds come flying out of his jacket or something, right? [CHUCKLE] But I think that element of surprise is so powerful in any art form.


What are some of the ways you bring complexity and range to music using an ukulele?


The one thing that I think I do different from other ukulele players is, the energy that I like to play with. I guess I’ve always had this vision from the time I was a kid. I would watch rock bands, people like Van Halen, or guitar players like Yngwie Malmsteen. And you’d see these guys, they’re playing their instruments, and they’re like running all across the stage, and jumping into the audience, stage-diving, and just yelling and screaming. And I always thought to myself, Why can’t an ukulele concert be like that? I mean, after an ukulele performance, I just want to be drenched, like I just wrestled a bear. So I try to incorporate — it’s basically like all these little things. You want to take a little bit of everything and really showcase it on the instrument. Dynamics, I think, is probably one of the most powerful aspects of music. And the ukulele has an extremely wide dynamic range.


For example?


Like for example, if you think of the trumpet. A trumpet is a pretty loud instrument, right, and people think, Oh, yeah, you know, you can play really, really loud. But if you think about it, on the trumpet, you can’t play really soft. Before you can even get a tone, you need to play at a certain volume, right? So, if this is zero and this is ten, the trumpet’s dynamic range may be from here to here. Right? But the ukulele can’t play nearly as loud as a trumpet. But, you can play so much softer than a trumpet. I mean, like most string instruments, even a guitar, you can bring it down to nothing.


Jake Shimabukuro’s blossoming solo career took him to Japan and across the U.S. mainland. A chance appearance on a small New York television show and the rise of the Internet video service You Tube helped launch Jake’s career to new heights.


There’s a local television show in New York called Ukulele Disco, and they feature all these different ukulele players. So, since I was in town, I guess somehow, they knew of me, so they contacted me and they said, Hey, you want to be on our show? I said, Yeah, sure, right. So, he took me to Central Park, and I sat on this rock, and he just had a little handheld video camera. And he asked me a few questions, and I played a song. And it just so happened I was working on an arrangement of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, so I played that, and it aired on TV. And it’s just a small local station in New York. And then, I came back home to Hawaii. So, this was about seven years ago. And about six or seven years ago, You Tube had just started out. So, I was back home in Hawaii and just minding my own business. A few months later, I get some emails and calls from friends, ‘cause lot of my friends were on the mainland and they were going to school, and all that. So they called me up and they said, Hey, people have been sending me this video of you performing, you know, playing in Central Park. So I was like, What are you talking about? So they forwarded the email to me, and there was this link, and I clicked on, and there I was. I thought, Hey, that’s the thing I did for that Ukulele Disco show. I was like, How did it get on this site? In a matter of weeks, millions, and millions, and millions of views. Millions, and millions, and millions of downloads, and I couldn’t believe it. I started getting calls from other bands and artists, and venues, people saying like, Hey, we want you to come play at our venue, or we want you to come open for our band, or record with us on our next record. And it was just incredible. I mean, since that video hit, I’ve been able to collaborate with people like Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, John Hiatt, Cyndi Lauper, Bette Midler. In fact, couple years ago, I went with Bette Midler to England, and we performed for Queen Elizabeth. I mean, it all just stemmed from this You Tube.


Even with all of his success and international popularity, Jake Shimabukuro remains humble and grounded. To Jake, his family is the most important part of his life. He remains close with both of his parents and his younger brother Bruce, who is also an accomplished ukulele performer and instructor. A few months before this conversation took place in 2013, Jake and his wife Kelly had their first child.


You got married and had a baby, but how did your relationship with your now wife start?


Oh, gosh. Yeah. I know; I can’t believe I’m married, have a baby. It’s awesome.


And a great career.


It’s really incredible. I met my wife … it was actually my stepsister Lisa who set me up on a blind date with her. We scheduled a … I don’t know if it was a lunch or a dinner. But right around that time she was in a residency program, ‘cause she’s an OBGYN. And the day that we were supposed to go out, I got sick. So, I called her and I had to cancel our plans. I said, Oh, yeah, you mind if we do this another time? So she said, Oh, yeah, sure, just call.


Did you reschedule on the spot?


Well we didn’t set any date, but I basically just said that, Oh, yeah, maybe when I’m feeling better we can try to schedule something again. So she said, Okay. So [CHUCKLE] right around that time, I started touring, and I got really busy, and she was in the residency program. So, three years later —


Three years later.


I called her up out of the blue and I said, Oh, hey, it’s Jake.


[CHUCKLE] I’m feeling better now.


Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I was wondering if you wanted to go out again. She was very sweet, and I think she kinda laughed about it. But she was like, Yeah, sure, sure, we can get together and you know, go out. And so, I took her out for Thai food, and we went a little place called Chiang Mai on King Street.


Kinda near where you grew up, right?


Yeah. And we had a three-hour dinner that night.


First sight attraction, or …


Oh, yeah.


Or did it grow?


I mean, as soon as she walked through the door, I … I mean, I don’t know if she believes it or not, but I knew that this was the girl I want to marry.




Yeah. I knew from that first date. And now, we have healthy baby boy. He’s about five months.


What’s his name?


Chase. And he’s just the greatest joy of our lives. I mean, he’s just amazing, the cutest thing. But of course, every parent thinks that of their child, I’m sure.


What are you most grateful for in your life?


Oh … the thing I’m most grateful for is just my family. And that extends to, of course, my parents, grandparents, and just my uncles and aunties. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I mean, every stage in my life, and even in my career, I’ve always, always had just good, solid people to guide me, and to help me and support me. And so, I’m most grateful for that.


Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro continues to push the boundaries of music with his dexterous and dynamic performances. His unique talent has taken the four-stringed, two-octave instrument far beyond Hawaii’s shores. When we spoke in 2013, Jake was on a break from a thirty-plus-city tour across Japan and the U.S. mainland. In 2012, he released a new album, Grand Ukulele, in which he teamed up with legendary producer Alan Parsons, best known for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Jake says that teaming up with The Alan Parsons was an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up. Mahalo to Jake Shimabukuro for sharing his story with us, and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit


It has the same effect as going to a magic show, in a lot of ways. Right? You’re there, and he comes out, and like, What’s he gonna do? What? What’s he doing? And then all of a sudden, all these birds come flying out of his jacket or something, right? [CHUCKLE] But I think that element of surprise is so powerful in any art form.



Nathan Aweau, Award-Winning Vocalist


Nathan Aweau, award-winning vocalist and former member of music group Hapa, performs in this special recorded at the PBS Hawaii studio. In between songs, Nathan reflects on his work from scenic Kahana Bay on Windward Oahu.


Ukulele 2002: A Weekend with the Masters

Ukulele 2002: A Weekend with the Masters


Air date: Mon., July 20, 7:30 pm


This episode of NA MELE is a special 12th anniversary encore of an event recorded in 2002, featuring some of Hawai’i Music Institute’s teaching staff, including Melveen Leed, Byron Yasui, Brother Noland and Ku’uipo Kumukahi.


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