Kumu Bula Akamu’s classroom buzzes with the happy strumming of 30 ukulele played in unison and an enthusiastic chorus of young voices. Music spills from this Kahakai Elementary School building, causing passers-by to pause, smile and even sing along.
The second- through fifth-grade students are on their feet, standing in rows. There are no stands with sheet music. Instead, the room churns with song, all memorized, and dance — head bobbing, swaying and an occasional spin from a boy in the back row.
In between songs, Akamu has the students close their eyes as they finger chords announced one by one. He also reminds them to not only play well, but to listen to each other and play together. His mantra: “One sound, one heartbeat.”
This is the Kahakai Ukulele Ensemble, an after-school group that’s wowing crowds, winning awards and growing in popularity.
The group practices from 2 to 3 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays and performs two to three times a month at community events, including parades. Its next performance is at 10 a.m. Saturday in the Royal Kona Resort’s Alii Surf Room.
Kahakai Ukulele Ensemble plays songs drawn from every genre and the students help choose them. So it’s no surprise to hear contemporary tunes like Lorde’s “Royals” or Andy Grammer’s “Keep Your Head Up.” But it’s their sound and showmanship that seem way beyond their years. When they launch into a rousing rendition of “Wipe Out,” their signature song, cheering usually follows as the students play their ukulele behind their back and in between their legs.
Akamu, the school’s Hawaiian studies teacher, started this music program five years ago, when he discovered rows of beautiful, unused ukulele in storage. His first lessons were given to five interested students. Today, he teaches ukulele to 150 students in his Hawaiian studies class. With the Kahakai Ukulele Ensemble, which is offered every semester, he tries to keep it to 30 participants. He also offers a summer program.
Music has always been a huge part of Akamu’s life. Growing up in Pahala, he was blessed with a musical and entertaining family. After graduating from Ka‘u High School in 2002, he studied music education and performance, with an emphasis in guitar, at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Upon receiving his master’s degree, Akamu returned to the Big Island to give back to the community that he loves. For him, that meant doing something for the keiki.
Starting a music program at Kahakai was a dream come true. He has witnessed how involvement in music generates a positive impact on other areas of students’ lives, including improving self-discipline, dexterity, coordination, self-esteem, leadership, teamwork, thinking and listening skills, creative abilities, and personal expression. Besides being universal, music is medicine, particularly for students who need something extracurricular to do and fall in love with. His goal is to put smiles on faces and bring people together in the sharing of music.
When third-grader Emma Akana performs, she feels free. Fifth-grader Jordan Bear, on other hand, feels like she can do anything and nothing is impossible, especially with a lot of hard work, dedication and belief in oneself.
What Bear, 10, appreciates most about the ensemble is how she learns more about her culture while also having an outlet to really express herself.
It’s during “Wipe Out” that Caiya Hanks feels most like a rock star. The 9-year-old fourth-grader said she used to be very shy until she joined the ensemble. Hanks got involved because she wanted to learn a Hawaiian instrument and have the opportunity to perform.
Over the years, Hanks has become more confident and is now unfazed about having to sing and play in a lead role. She’s also discovered her instrument is useful in ways not originally thought, such as helping soothe her when frustrated or bettering her memorization — a skill that came in handy when mastering multiplication.
Hanks enjoys the fellowship the ensemble provides and the joys of communal music-making, which can become contagious. She’s also proud to represent her school in this way.