Playing on the “Friendly Isle,” Uke Ohana Molokai 2019

By Heidi Swedberg

My grandfather had the most amazing photo albums, filled with small, sepia images of paradise found. Tucked into tiny triangular anchors, brittle black pages told the adventures of a young schoolteacher wearing white flannel suits, hitchhiking from North Dakota and taking a steamer to Hawaii in 1927. Pictures of palm trees and dirt roads, Waikiki beach, sunset silhouettes of the solitary Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where he claimed to have swam with Duke Kahanamoku. I grew up holding a fantasy Hawaii in my imagination, rich with culture and rural simplicity. A world I thought of as long gone. And then I went to Molokai.

Hula at Pu’u O Hoku. Photo by Duncan Berry.

Molokai Uke Ohana retreat is like taking a trip back in time with your ukulele. With no traffic lights or buildings over two stories on the island, Molokai is a very different experience from the bustle of Oahu. The moment you walk across the tarmac at the tiny airport you have the sense of what Hawaii might have been like generations ago. Daniel Ward and I were hired to teach with local legend Lono for 5 days.

Local figure Lono, talks story. Photo by Duncan Berry.

The creators of “Tunes in the Dunes,” Melany and Duncan Berry, have had a life-long love for the island, and this was their ninth consecutive year hosting an event there. They welcome retreat participants with old-fashioned flair as they deplane, draping them with fragrant plumeria leis strung that morning by Molokai Plumerias, a family run flower farm. Hop in the red-dirt dusted vans, pass the hand painted signs saying “Slow Down You’re on Molokai” and “Post a Nut,” advertising the post office’s unique service of providing free unhusked coconuts you can write on with marker and mail, unwrapped, to friends back home. The first stop is Pala’au State Park for a walk along ridge to look down at Kalaupapa, the infamous former leper colony founded in 1866. Melany says “Immerse yourself in old-style Hawaiian music and aloha culture is one of our mottoes,” as she and Duncan point out historic sites on the hour-long drive across the long, narrow island, including the remains of ancient stone enclosed fish ponds along the shoreline, where the first Hawaiians farmed their fish.


Daniel Ward teaching a class on the lanai. Photo by Duncan Berry.

At the far east-end of the island, Pu’u O Hoku Ranch is perched on a hilltop overlooking the ocean. A working 14,000-acre ranch, the “Hill of Stars” provides the perfect setting for cultural immersion. The ranch’s historic buildings provide a rustic elegance, and our room had a unique feature–a beehive in the wall! A sheet of glass framed into the interior paneling gave us a view of the honey we enjoyed at breakfast, and the happy hum of the bees was our lullaby. A demonstration and lecture about the sacred staples, kukui and taro, preceded a dinner of vegetables from the biodynamic farm, freshly pounded poi and wild venison.

Daniel Ward and Heidi Swedberg Kani ka pila. Photo Duncan Berry.

Immersion in the culture and landscape of Hawaii gives context and depth to the music, and inspires participants to tap their own creativity. After a sunrise swim in the warm, tranquil water of Halawa beach, there were three hours of ukulele classes, with a focus on songwriting and Hawaiian songs, written in and about Molokai, by Lono and Dennis Kamakahi. Additional daily activities included classes in hula and the art of Japanese nature printing, pilgrimages to the sacred sites of Halawa valley, and a hike through a valley of taro enclosed by ancient rock walls leading to secluded twin waterfalls.

What are your favorite chords? I-IV-V! Photo by Duncan Berry.

“Be gentle with yourselves this next week,” Melany cautioned us as we left. She knew the culture shock of stepping back into the 21st century would be jarring, and she was right. Molokai will live in my heart forever, my dream of Hawaii come true. Their next adventure, Uke Ohana Oahu, to be held in August of 2019, is in the final planning stages and promises to be a culturally immersive view of an island too often obscured by the flash of large-scale commercial tourism.

Molokai retreat participants. Photo by Duncan Berry.