Nik Streng ukulele

Nik Streng, left, plays in the Ukulele Festival Hawaii in 2001.

I couldn’t help my ear-to-ear grin on Friday morning as I stood in Susie Lott’s music class at Aiken Elementary School.

Aiken and Cairo Elementary Schools are now offering ukuleles, many of which were bought for the district by donors and parent help.

Ever since I came to Ontario nearly four years ago, I’ve been blown away by Ontario’s love of other cultures, ranging from events like Dia de los Muertos, the Tradition Keepers Folklife Festival and the Obon Festival.

Now, the kids of Ontario are able to embrace another culture that’s near and dear to my heart: Hawaiian.

I am not native Hawaiian, but I was born and raised in Hawaii and, to the shock of the students when I arrived on Friday, also took ukulele lessons when I was a kid. For about three years, I took lessons from Roy Sakuma, one of the most well-known ukulele instructors in Hawaii and the creator of Ukulele Festival Hawaii — the largest ukulele festival in the world, which has been going since 1971.

I played in Ukulele Festival Hawaii in 2001, when I was in fifth grade. I still remember how stressed I was to memorize “Bridge on the River Kwai” and play it in front of people.

This is why I was overjoyed to see the students of Aiken Elementary playing and enjoying the ukulele: I saw a bit of myself in their faces.

The ukulele isn’t that easy.

It can be small and awkward. Getting the chords memorized is hard. Having a quick hand to pick takes a lot of practice. I was in their shoes almost 20 years ago.

This is why I brought my own ukulele to Friday’s class. Mine was made for me by a family friend in Hilo when I was very young. It’s bigger than most and it’s loud. The kids got a kick out of seeing my ukulele compared to their smaller ones.

I also brought my binder of music from Roy Sakuma, which has been with me for a long time. My binder is home to dozens and dozens of songs that I learned when I was the same age as the students at Aiken.

After class, Lott and I flipped through my binder and found a couple of songs that she wants to look up to potentially teach the students.

“Surf” is a song by Ka’au Crater Boys and is a classic among ukulele players in Hawaii. It’s simple with just four chords. It’s everyone’s first song they learn at ukulele lessons.

“Hawaiian Rollercoaster Ride” might be a little tougher, but the students will certainly get a kick out of playing a song from “Lilo & Stitch.” Also the song is jam-packed with Hawaiian lyrics that are fun to sing. Fun fact: I know a lot of people in the Kamehameha Schools Children’s Chorus that sang the lyrics for that song.

Lott, and anyone looking for ukulele songs, is more than welcome to take a look at and scan the music in my binder (I haven’t looked through it in years).

I’m hoping to someday hear more and more of the kids’ ukulele prowess!

Nik Streng is the sports reporter for the Argus Observer. He graduated from the University of Oregon in 2015 with a master's degree in journalism, after graduating from Pacific University in 2013 with a degree in creative writing.

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