WORK-RELATED CAREER EXPERIENCE
Age 5, on ‘ukulele (first instrument studied) and hula. First group/band performed with at age 10, on drums – Honolulu, Hawaii.
Junior High and High School Band – Percussion section, as well as performing with various musical groups and classical ensembles (drums and percussion). Also performed as a solo act on ukulele, harmonica, and guitar – Honolulu, Hawaii.
As a percussionist: concert band, symphonic band, marching band, orchestra, stage band, and percussion ensemble, as well as playing with a wide variety of groups (on drum set), styles including: Hawaiian, Rock, Soul, Pop, Rhythm and Blues, Show, Country-Western, Dixieland Jazz, Top 40, Latin, and Jazz – Honolulu, Hawaii.
Jingles (radio), television commercials, and demos.
2000 – Present: teaching group, private, and Skype ‘Ukulele Lessons
1997-Present: part-time teacher at Sundai College of Foreign Languages (Ochanomizu, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo)
1986-Present: teaching Englishin Japan with various companies, community centers, “kuyakusho” (ward office) staff, as well as private studies (young children to adults).
1982-1986: worked as a substitute teacher with the Chicago Public School System.
Taught group and private lessons on guitar, ‘ukulele, harmonica, and drums – Honolulu, Hawaii / Torrance, California / Chicago, Illinois / Tokyo, Japan
(Chicago, Illinois) Graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science – September, 1984 Graduated with Honors.
(Chicago Music College at Roosevelt University, Chicago, Illinois) Graduated with a B.M. Degree (Bachelor of Music Degree in Music Education/Special Education Concentration) – May, 1981
Aubrey Willis School of Piano Tuning and Repairing
(Orlando, Florida) Completed certificate course – October, 1977.
El Camino College
(Torrance, California) Graduated with an A.A. Degree (Associate in Arts Degree / Music concentration) – June, 1975
University of Hawaii
Music Education undergraduate studies from 1971- 73
Private Percussion studies
F. Uchima, University of Hawaii-1964 (rudimental snare drumming)
L. Russell, University of Hawaii-1971-73 (snare and mallet studies)
E. Poremba, Chicago Musical College at Roosevelt University-1979-81 (multiple percussion studies)
Drum Set Studies
H. Chang, Honolulu, Hawaii
J. Rasnur, Honolulu,. Hawaii
R. Jones, Chicago, Illinois
A. Caselli, Chicago, Illinois
Aoyagi Music Studios, Honolulu, Hawaii. Ms. Chadwick- Collins, University of Hawaii (under scholarship). Honolulu Symphony Society Children’s Opera Chorus, participated in two major operas: Carmen and LaBoheme
Private ‘Ukulele studies
Mr. Robert Y. Fukumoto (father), ‘ukulele instructor – Honolulu, Hawaii
American Federation of Musicians Union: Local 677 (Honolulu, Hawaii)
Q: What does “Ku’ulei” mean?
A: My first name is actually “Ku’ulei Mamo” – it’s the name that’s written on my birth certificate. I don’t even have an English name! I was named after my godmother, Aunty Ku’ulei. Her mother, Mama Bishop, gave me “Mamo.” “Ku-u” (two syllables) means “my” and “lei” means “flower lei” or “wreath.” One meaning, then, is “my lei (or wreath of love)”–so it could mean something like “my sweetheart.” I understand that in the old Hawaiian days, the special one of the family was named “Ku’ulei,” meaning “my dear child” and therefore, “Ku’ulei” could even be a boy’s name. “Mamo” is the name of a plant, fish, and bird that are supposed to protect me on land, sea, and air.
Q: Lovely name! So what got you interested in music?
A: My family grew up with music because of my father’s influence. Dad had to actually run away from home to pursue his studies in music because my grandmother was so strongly against it. He was an electrician by trade, but from his private studies he really knew his music theory inside and out. When he was young, he had a band and played ‘ukulele, guitar, mandolin, and tenor banjo. My mother was the singer with his band.
Q: When did you start learning to play the ukulele?
A: The ‘ukulele was my very first musical instrument so it’s always been a very important part of my life. My father started teaching me ‘ukulele and music theory as soon as I was able to hold the instrument. I must have been about 3 or 4 years old.
Q: What was your father’s musical style?
A: Because my father knew his theory so well, he would get a lead sheet of music and create his own arrangement of songs like “Malaguena,” “Come Back to Sorento,” “Third Man Theme,” “Till,” “Stardust,” “Granada,” “Begin the Beguine,” and played the whole piece by himself. To get in all those sounds – melody and chords – on a solo ukulele, he picked and strummed and had a very unique style of playing. It’s hard to describe, but it was pretty cool because he didn’t copy anyone. Well, I don’t know of anyone who played like that in his time. He’d sit and practice for hours and hours on end. Anyway, his style of playing went WAY beyond the “chalangalang” strum, that’s for sure!
Q: What do you like about playing different instruments like the ukulele and drums?
A: Playing an instrument is a creative art and I find it both thoroughly enjoyable and challenging to express myself through the sounds I create.
Q: Have you ever tried playing any Japanese instruments like the taiko drum and shamisen?
A: Not formally. I played around a bit with my cousin’s taiko and my friends’ shamisen and koto, but someday if I ever have the chance to learn, I would love to study Japanese instruments formally – at least to get a solid understanding of the basics.
Q: So what brought you to Japan?
A: I actually came to Japan with the hopes of being a jazz drummer here.
Q: How did you start teaching ukulele in Japan? How long have you been teaching ukulele in Japan?
A: I have teaching credentials (K-12, Regular school and Special Education) and I also have experience teaching ukulele, drums, and guitar, but the thought of teaching here never even occurred to me because I came to Japan with the intention of performing on drums.
However, I fell into teaching English by accident since a friend was leaving to return to the States and asked me to take over her classes. Once I got a taste of teaching Japanese students, I developed a very keen interest in it – to a point where I can honestly say that I’ve found my niche in teaching here.
Then, to my surprise, I found out that there was a demand for teaching the ‘ukulele! The ‘ukulele is the love of my life and what better combination is there than to do something you LOVE and be able to make a living at it! In 2000, I started teaching the ‘ukulele in Japan.
Q: Is it important to have teaching credentials?
A: In my opinion as far as teaching is concerned, credentials and formal training do NOT necessarily make a person a good teacher. When I was a college student, I had lousy teachers who held Ph.D.s and great teachers who were still students themselves (working on their graduate degrees). By the same token, some of the best/most talented musicians I’ve worked with couldn’t read a note of music. No – a good teacher is a good teacher.
Q: How do you teach the ‘ukulele to students? Do you have a fixed curriculum?
A: There are definitely the basics to learn about the ukulele. People are quite surprised that a ‘ukulele is actually a very “serious instrument.” You can play scales and inversions and various styles of music on the ukulele. I incorporate some music theory along with technique, but it isn’t as difficult as it may sound. After the basics are introduced and students familiarize themselves with them, I pace myself according to the pace of the students. I don’t want to stick with a rigid course of study because I also want students to learn what they would like to learn. Another extremely important point about the way I teach is that ALL my students are my friends. I want learning to be fun and NEVER stressful. There’s never any pressure – no tests, rehearsals for concerts, etc. I share my aloha spirit with them and we have parties (like at home or “ohanami”) where we can come together and enjoy our friendship, play ukulele, and share our love for music (and eating “ono” food)!
Q: Do you offer a set course (of so many weeks) or is it more informal where students come whenever?
A: No, I don’t have a set course of a pre-determined amount of time because that is too limiting/restrictive. I don’t want students to be forced to reach a certain point within a certain time. Or worse yet, if they couldn’t progress as quickly as others, then that would be pretty frustrating or even embarrassing. Everyone learns at a different pace and I never pressure students in any way because I want learning to be fun and enjoyable. Furthermore, I want students to realize that it’s not “how many songs you know” but WHAT you learn. With a good solid basic knowledge chords and some technique, students find that they are able to play all kinds of songs on their own. I want them to be able to pick up an ‘ukulele at a party and play along to sing-along songs naturally. Classes meet once a week for an hour and a half.
Q: Do you divide your students into beginner and advanced classes?
A: I start everyone at the same level – beginning. Fortunately, students have stayed together long enough to progress together to a more advanced level. All new classes start from the beginning, even if it might be a review of things they may already know. Actually, I like to teach beginners because it’s important to develop good habits from the start.
Q: What ‘ukulele songs do you teach your students?
A: I teach mostly Hawaiian songs, of course, but also English songs. I threw in a couple of Japanese songs along the way because I arranged “Furusato” and “Sakura Sakura” for the ‘ukulele. At one of our “ohanami” cherry blossom-viewing parties, someone asked if I could play “Sakura Sakura” so I made an arrangement of it on the ‘ukulele. And one day when I was fiddling around on the ‘ukulele, I had the melody to “Furusato” in my head and discovered that it matched so well on the ‘ukulele.
Q: Do your students play the ‘ukulele and sing in Hawaiian or in English or both?
A: Both – but when the song is in Hawaiian, I make it a point to give them the translation of the song so the meaning of the song is understood. As in hula, when you know the meaning of a song, you can express it better when you perform the song. I’m known as the “hatsuon urusai” (fussy about proper pronunciation) teacher because I don’t want my students to talk or sing with a heavy “katakana” accent. I don’t like my students to write Hawaiian lyrics in “katakana” because then their pronunciation will be in “katakana.” Hawaiian is similar to “katakana” but it’s NOT the same!
Q: How did your students get interested in playing the ‘ukulele?
A: To begin with, my students all LOVE Hawaii and Hawaiian music. Three main points about the ‘ukulele is its beautiful sound, portability, and ease in learning to play it. You see, a basic ‘ukulele has only four strings. It’s light and very easy to carry around. Yet, the ‘ukulele is actually a pretty versatile instrument.
Q: How do you recruit students?
A: I once placed a classified ad in a magazine called the Tokyo Metropolis and I also have students by word of mouth, as with my English conversation students.
Q: Do you do the hula as well?
A: Yes. I probably started dancing as young as when I started learning the ‘ukulele. My late godmother, “Aunty Ku’ulei” (whom I was named after), and her mother (also deceased), Mama Bishop, spoke fluent Hawaiian and they were both kumu hula (hula instructors).
Q: Most hula students in Japan are elderly women. Why is this? Why don’t the younger women learn the hula?
A: There are quite a lot of young women who learn hula, but just not as many as the older women. It might be because elderly women have more time to take up a hobby.
Q: Do you have any theories on why the hula and ‘ukulele are popular in Japan?
A: Doing the hula and playing the ‘ukulele have a certain appeal with it’s beauty and grace, simplicity, and pleasing sounds (to dance hula to and to play on the ‘ukulele). Some people view the hula as good exercise, and it is.
As usual, it was a pleasure talking to Ku’ulei. She’s very friendly and approachable. It’s no wonder that her students like her a lot. If you’re in Tokyo and want to take some ‘ukulele lessons, e-mail her at email@example.com. (Interview by Philbert Ono)