How to Get Your Uke On in Hawaii

How To: Pam Mandel introduces you to your new four-stringed friend. Just don't call it a "you-koo-lele."

01.29.09 | 9:22 AM ET

ukelelePhoto by Pam Mandel

The situation: You hear it on the plane to Hawaii as background music in the pretty tourist videos. There’s a duo strumming tunes in the arrivals hall. The sound spills out from hotel plazas and shopping center cabanas and the radio in your rental car. It’s the sweet melodic song of the ukulele, and you realize you have got to find a way to make that music a part of your life.

This is Hawaii, so take it easy. Before you lose your heart to the first shiny, four-stringed instrument you see, take time to explore the ukulele landscape. Follow your senses, and learn a few things about this little instrument—which, you’ll be delighted to learn, is small enough to make a convenient travel companion for the musically inclined. And, yes, it fits in the overhead compartment.

Say it right: While you’re in the islands, it’s “ook-oo-lele” not “you-koo-lele.” The Hawaiian word means jumping flea. The uke—you know to say “ook” now—arrived with Portuguese sailors as the four-stringed braguina. Supposedly, the Portuguese musicians could play so fast that the Hawaiians thought the fret board was covered with jumping fleas.

Where to hear uke music: A little inspiration goes a long way. Catch a ukulele concert at the Hanalei Bay Community Center on Kauai or check in with the Masters of Slack Key Guitar concert series, and see if they’ve got a uke player on their tour schedule—they often do. It sounds counterintuitive, but head to the shopping mall—often there’s live Hawaiian music, complete with hula dancers, in the food court or central cabana. This can be hit or miss, but you might just find yourself glued to your plastic chair. 

Browse the entertainment listings in the island weeklies—maybe Jake Shimabukuro is in town. Want something more traditional? The venerable Bill Tapia still performs at the amazing age of 101 years old.  And there’s a whole new generation of rising ukulele stars, including Brittni Paiva, David Kamakahi and Herb Ohta Jr.

Buy your own uke: They’re sold nearly everywhere, and they’re hard to resist. But don’t fall for the glossy lacquered souvenir ukes, no matter how fetching the hula girl stenciled on their faces may be. These little toys are just that—toys. They’re often strung with fishing line and meant to be mementos, not instruments. They’re for looking at or for handing to your nephew or niece or coworker as you gloat about your time in paradise.

Walk away from these candy colors and find a music store. Try Scotty’s Music on Kauai or Ukulele House in Waikiki. A decent beginner’s uke starts around $50. Spending $150 will get you quite a nice ukulele, though as with any instrument, you can spend a lot more.

Play the field: That wall of ukes is there for a reason—each model plays, sounds and feels different. As you test the instruments, press down on the strings—you shouldn’t have to exert a lot of effort to get the strings to meet the fret board. Strum a little. How’s the sound? Is it clear and sweet? How does the instrument feel in your hands? Does the neck fit nicely in your palm? The music store staff will understand that it’s a personal choice. Go ahead, ask to play the one in the top corner; someone on the staff will pull it down for you.

You will know when you’ve got the right one; you’ll feel it. And when you do find it, consider getting it a hard case, too. Some stores will throw in the case for free—if they don’t, expect to spend another $60 or so. It’s worth it to keep your new friend protected when you travel.

Learn the licks: Free uke lessons aren’t hard to find. As part of Hawaiian culture programs, larger resorts and shopping centers offer free classes for beginners—complete with loaner ukes. Some music stores give you an hour or two of free instruction when you buy a uke. You can even take a ukulele lesson online.

You only need to know a few chords to play a song. Once you’ve learned to read chord diagrams, find a chord chart, and you’re on your way. Buy your inner critic a Mai Tai and start with something easy, such as Ukulele Lady—it’s a classic. You can work your way through the old Don Ho standards like “Pearly Shells” and Tiny Bubbles, or go Hawaiian with Wahine Ilikea—they all use easy chord changes that even beginners can manage. You’ve probably heard Big Iz’s enchanted version of Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World. It’s not a difficult piece to learn, though mastering Iz’s trademark strum takes timing and patience.

If you already know how to play, ask around in music stores and tourism offices about participating in a kanakapila—a song circle—where you’ll sit down with locals. The Ukulele Gallery in Holualoa on the Big Island holds a weekly song circle and is a great place to see some gorgeous—and expensive—one-of-a-kind ukes.

Take it away: The little uke is easy to make fun of, referred to as the instrument of choice for those with neither talent nor shame. Don’t be put off by the teasing. You’d be surprised by how many people have fallen for its charms. Back at home, you’re likely to find a ukulele club near you. For instance, the Seattle Ukulele Players Association boasts more than 100 members. There are uke clubs in Guam, England, Germany, Japan, Sweden and beyond.

No matter where you find yourself—the Australian outback, the slopes of the Rockies or downtown Madrid—the moment you strum your uke, you’re back in the islands in an instant.

Pam Mandel is a freelance writer and photographer from Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in a variety of print, radio, and web publications and she's contributed to two guidebooks, one on British Columbia and one on Hawaii. She plays the ukulele, has an internal beacon that is surprisingly capable of locating the best baked goods in town, almost any town, and speaks German with a Styrian accent. Learn more on her personal blog at Nerd's Eye View.

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