It may not be in the hills, but the Waikoloa Beach Resort will be alive with the sound of music for the 14th Annual Ukulele Festival, from 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., on Saturday, March 1. The popular event attracts visitors young and old, newbies and pros and whole families who stroll with stickered ukulele cases, sit down to kani ka pila or kick back in the grass and listen to the big sound from the little instrument with four strings.
Highlighting the festival are ukulele bands from Hawaii Preparatory Academy, Waikoloa School, and Maui’s Kalama Intermediate Ukulele Youth Ensemble. More than 100 future virtuosi will join their teachers, mentors and ukulele heroes in a music-filled day that includes 14 free concerts at Queens’ MarketPlace and Kings’ Shops and concludes with a performance by the multiple Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning group “Kapena” with Kelly Boy DeLima.
One little musician, Makanaomakualani “Makana” Toriano, 5, will come all the way from South Point to meet his own ukulele hero, Nicholas Acosta, whose You Tube video—made when Nick was about Makana’s age—inspired the young boy to want to learn how to play the instrument. Just like Acosta, Makana was born with only one arm; the other is uniquely formed, ending at his elbow. The condition — where a baby’s fingers, hand or arm are not fully formed—occurs in utero and affects thousands of children each year.
Acosta, now 17, will perform during the Ukulele Festival and will spend time with Makana.
Last fall, mom Kailani Toriano discovered a video of noted ukulele teacher Roy Sakuma’s “Super Keiki,” featuring Acosta, then about 7. Nick had mastered the ukulele despite his physical limitation.
“When he saw the video, he said ‘I want to do that!’ We got him a toy ukulele and he played it a lot,” said Kailani Toriano. “I emailed Roy Sakuma and asked him to give me some tips, because I thought ‘If he can teach Nick, I can teach my son.’”
“The first thing he said was ‘make sure Makana is holding the ukulele properly,’” Toriano said.
Sakuma is the owner of Roy Sakuma Ukulele Studios and founder with wife Kathy Sakuma of the nonprofit, Ukulele Festival Hawaii. He has taught many students with disabilities, and remembers when Nick first started coming to class.
“My wife recognized him (Nick) and saw the difference he had, so I approached and asked his mother if Nick would like to learn directly under me,” said Sakuma. “I told him I was going to teach him like any other youngster, and I was not going to make it any easier on him. He was able to learn just like any other child.”
Sakuma said one of his most memorable moments with Acosta was just after he had finished playing at the Ukulele Festival, when an older woman came up to say how much his music had touched her heart.
“Nick was 11 or 12 years old and he showed her the little nub on his elbow,” said Sakuma. “And I overheard him say, ‘I just thank God that He gave me this little nub.’ He has turned out to be a very special young man … His disability has not stopped him from going out there and being an inspiration to so many.”
Unlike Nick, Makana’s arm is shaped differently, so, with the help of a local ukulele store, they were able to construct a special Velcro strap to hold a guitar pick for him. At first it made Makana’s arm sore, just like his mom, whose fingers are sore from learning to hold chords herself. They are both still working on perfecting their technique.
Kailani describes her son as “a 5-year-old fearless adventurer who has never been afraid to do whatever he wants.” Makana has found a way to do what every little boy does, from pulling his own pants up to fishing, gathering firewood, riding a bike and a scooter, and more.
“You can accomplishing anything,” said Kailani. “Your identity is not in your arm; it’s in your ukulele music and how well you play … When he says ‘I can’t because I only have one hand,’ I say ‘Oh really? Well you still have to pick up your toys.’”
“He dreams of being a train conductor, pilot, fisherman, ukulele player and an NCIS agent … And this year, his desire to learn to play ukulele has really taken hold of him,” Kailani added. “He practices and always tries his best … He’s never seen anyone with an arm like his, so his excitement (at meeting Nick) is doubled.”
“I’m sure Nick will share some words of inspiration and be a blessing to the boy and his mother,” said Sakuma.
He also had to overcome a disability of sorts himself in order to learn to play ukulele at age 16.
“Nobody could teach me,” said Sakuma. “I had no rhythm, nothing at all.”
Eventually, Herb “Ohta San” Ohta took Sakuma under his wing.
“He taught me how to read the music sheets first, and I latched on right away,” Sakuma said.
Sakuma said he had a photographic memory and an affinity for numbers, so seeing music related to numbers finally made sense.
“If he had taught me to strum and play rhythm the usual way, I would have failed,” said Sakuma, who was teaching ukulele himself within only two years—and has been teaching ever since. “It’s the responsibility of the teacher to find a way that works for the students.”
“This year’s festival is particularly inspiring because we have four ‘generations’ of musicians and their mentors with us,” said Margo Mau Bunnell of Waikoloa Beach Resort. “Makanaomakualani is coming to meet Nick who inspired him to play. Nick and others like Nelly Toyama-Baduria were inspired by Roy, and he was inspired by Ohta San. And having them all here together for the festival is inspiring for us too.”
“It’s also exciting for us to have three different ukulele groups from three different schools,” said Bunnell. “It’s wonderful to see all these young musicians coming together to see the people who inspired them, and to share their own talents. Then, to have stars like ‘Kapena’ play on our stage just caps off a great day all around.”
For more information on Saturday’s Ukulele Festival visit www.WaikoloaBeachResort.com or call 886-8822.