Smile, you're in ukulele country

PATRIARCH: At 90, Fred Kamaka remains a lively ambassador for the ukulele factory which bears his family name.
Martin Haughe

PATRIARCH: At 90, Fred Kamaka remains a lively ambassador for the ukulele factory which bears his family name.

I blame the heat. The glorious 35-plus degree Hawaiian temperature that turns my skin the colour of a barbecued pork chop and makes me do things I wouldn't normally dream of doing, such as wearing a bikini, drinking cocktails adorned with umbrellas and, on one particularly unfortunate occasion, attempting the hula.

But nothing sets the humiliation bar higher than learning how to play the ukulele.

This is how the conversation goes: "Wouldn't it be cool to learn how to play the ukulele in the spiritual home of the ukulele?" asks my husband.

BABY GUITARS: New ukuleles on the production line at the Kamaka factory.
Martin Haughe

BABY GUITARS: New ukuleles on the production line at the Kamaka factory.

Me: "Yes, but there's one slight problem. Neither of us knows what to do with a guitar, letalone a baby guitar."

Husband: "But that's the whole point of a lesson. Besides, the ukulele only has four strings, rather than the guitar's six strings, so technically it should be easier to learn."

I'm still not convinced but we're on holiday, it's a beautiful day – as it nearly always is in this cluster of tropical islands strewn across the Pacific – and an adventure of the cultural kind seems the perfect counterpoint to Honolulu's sun, surf and sloth. If we're going to make fools of ourselves, we reason, we might as well do so in spectacular fashion.

VIRTUOSO: Ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro performs a four-string rhapsody.
Martin Haughe

VIRTUOSO: Ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro performs a four-string rhapsody.

So we drive across the island to Kamaka Ukulele, one of Hawaii's oldest and most respected ukulele factories, where we quickly realise our first mistake. "If you can't pronounce it, you shouldn't be playing it," jokes Fred Kamaka, the 90-year-old son of Sam, who founded the two-storey factory in 1916. It turns out that Hawaii's distinctive stringed instrument is pronounced "oo-koo-lay-lee" not "you-ka-lay-lee".

Fred explains how Portuguese immigrants contracted to work on Hawaii's sugar-cane plantations in 1879 brought the ukulele with them. The locals were captivated by how easy it was to play and carry these melodic instruments, particularly the guitar-playing Sam.

"But dad wanted to incorporate the guitar's 'bigger sound' so he travelled to Europe to learn how these instruments were constructed. He came up with an oval shaped body, which gave him that deeper, richer tone. His friends suggested that it looked like a pineapple and one of them painted a picture of the fruit onto the front."

And so was born the Pineapple Ukulele, which remains the company's biggest seller (there are eight other models, including their most expensive, an eight-string monster that Sam designed in 1976 to commemorate the US bicentennial).

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These days, the fourth generation of Kamakas has taken over the company reins.

With the vigour of a man half his age, Fred leads us around the factory, showing us how the ukuleles are constructed out of Hawaiian koa wood which is dried and stretched before the mahogany necks and rosewood fingerboards are added.

It wasn't so long ago that the ukulele was an object of derision, regarded more as an oddity than a serious instrument. But photos of smiling celebrities in the adjacent shop show how the so-called "happy instrument" has come back into vogue with the likes of Lady Gaga, Bill Cosby, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Ziggy Marley and the cast of Glee being the proud owners of Kamaka Ukuleles. "If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place," says Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele maestro who Rolling Stone magazine called "a hero".

We're honoured to have the ukulele flag-bearer as our teacher; he's normally more booked up than Madonna's plastic surgeon (it turns out that our tour guide is his cousin who convinced him to give us a lesson).

The first and only solo ukulele recording artist in the world, Jake warms up with a rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. As his fingers fly across the strings, I begin to understand why ukulele means "jumping flea" in Hawaiian.

And then it's our turn. Jake hands us an instrument and leads us through the basics of how to hold the ukulele, pluck it and strum a few chords to extract the dainty, nimble sound that's softer than a mandolin and sweeter than a banjo.

I try my best to mimic Jake's movements but the chap next to me, a guitar player, has bucket loads more talent and puts me off. Somehow I manage to muddle through the Beatles' Love Me Do, hoping my passable singing voice will make up for my inept playing. It's surprisingly hard on the pads of my fingers and I'm thankful when Jake stops to tell us about playing for the Queen, jamming with director Francis Ford Coppola and appearing in the Adam Sandler film Just Go With It.

Against my better judgment, I agree to have another try, strumming along to Incy, Wincy Spider. Neither my husband nor I fare much better the second time around, but I can see how addictive it could be.

"The ukulele is a portal that only very happy people pass through," says Jake. He's right: no matter how bad you are, it's impossible to play a ukulele without smiling. I know, I've tried ...

The writer was a guest of the O'ahu Visitors Bureau, gohawaii.com/nz/oahu.

 - © Fairfax NZ News

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