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Hawaii's Stringed Instruments Have Worldwide Appeal

The 'ukulele and steel guitar picked up by notable musicians

In the past decade, the ʻukulele and the steel guitar have gained much attention, thanks to a legion of artists—and worldwide interest—who have picked up one or both of these distinctly Hawaiian instruments. The ʻukulele came to Hawai‘i as the braguinha, brought in by Portuguese from Madeira and the Azores, sub-tropical islands in the Atlantic, who came to work the sugar plantations in the 1880s and ’90s. It was quickly adapted by Hawaiians who proved adept as musicians. Their fast-moving style gave the braguinha a new name, ‘ukulele, or “jumping flea.”

Mexico is the likely origin of the Hawaiian guitar, possibly brought to the islands in the mid-19th century by cowboys hired to work Hawai‘i’s newly-created cattle ranches.  The Hawaiians, with a natural feel for the instrument, soon adapted it, creating a sound that would become identifiably Hawaiian, adding slack key tuning and developing the steel guitar, with the slider (called the “steel”) pressed on the strings to provide an evocative, lingering vibration that said Hawai‘i.

For three years, Mark Prucha had a standing Skype date. Once a week for 30 minutes, the Naperville, Illinois, native would connect his webcam and “chat” with his instructor, Alan Akaka, who was teaching the then-19-year-old aspiring steel guitar artist the techniques of this unmistakable Hawaiian instrument.

“It worked pretty well but we had to move the webcams around a lot so I could see his fingers,” Prucha said during a phone interview. “Alan is a patient teacher and very methodical. I’ve learned a ton from him.”

Alan Akaka continues to teach and play the Hawaiian steel guitar. (Courtesy Alan Akaka)

After retiring from Kamehameha Schools as its marching band instructor, Akaka continued his role as a teacher when he established Ke Kula Mele, a school focused on Hawaiian music. According to Akaka, the school is a place where creative and musical ideas can be developed and nurtured, and shared in a safe, fun, and supportive environment that’s firmly built on a foundation of hō‘ihi (respect), kuleana (responsibility), mālama (care for) and aloha.

“I was trained by legends and I want to pass that knowledge on to the younger generation,” Akaka asserted. “It’s carrying on their tradition and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture.”

Sharing a similar goal is the ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i, a nonprofit organization whose members span across the Hawaiian Islands and the globe with a single common passion: the beloved ‘ukulele.

“We share with the public ideas and experiences that have to do with making ‘ukulele because builders who make [them] have made a tremendous contribution to ‘ukulele,” says ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i president Kimo Hussey. “They’re making ‘ukulele sound better, look better and easier to play.”

ʻUkulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro agrees.

“I think, though, I’ve just scratched the tip of the surface with the ʻukulele,” Shimabukuro says. “My mom used to play the ʻukulele all the time and she put a ʻuke in my hands when I was 4 years old. But it was Roy Sakuma (longtime teacher and founder of the annual ʻUkulele Festival) who taught me and I totally respect his commitment to his students and this festival.”

Because of his educational experience, Akaka’s approach leans more academic when teaching his students Hawaiian music. He not only instructs them on how to play the instruments and sing the Hawaiian songs, but he also provides the cultural background behind the songs.

“They sing and learn the Hawaiian words but I teach them to visualize what they’re singing,” Akaka explained. “It’s understanding the stories and not just learning how to read music.”

For Prucha, it was also about learning how to arrange Hawaiian music.

“He would send me a different arrangement each week and I would practice it like crazy and try to memorize it for the following week’s class,” said Prucha, who now performs in Naperville with the band Hoapili. “It really helped me understand how to arrange Hawaiian music, which you can imagine isn’t really available around here.”

Students from Ke Kula Mele, along with Akaka and other artists organize the annual Waikīkī Steel Guitar Week at the Royal Hawaiian Center, where guests can also take a complimentary 'ukulele lesson.