Ukulele and Hula Competition Lights Up Las Vegas

By Audrey Coleman

How many ukulele events that you’ve attended have opened with a solemn chant in Hawaiian followed by a ceremonial hula performed to a pahu drum? And how many uke instructors do you know that receive the Hawaiian honorific kumu ukulele?

For the Kumukahi Ukulele and Hula Festival, held annually in Las Vegas, these are traditions. On August 11 and 12, six ukulele groups and 13 hula halau competed in a gathering established five years ago by kumu hula Sissy Kaio and her husband, ukulele kumu Lincoln Kaio. Their prestigious Hula Halau `O Lilinoe ame Na Pua me Kealoha is located in Carson, California.

Mel Ogata (center right) is kumu ukulele of the four-time Kumakahi competition winner Aloha Picking Ohana.

While ensembles from all over the mainland and Hawaii may compete, this year all the ukulele contestants were based in Southern California (Huntington Beach, Irvine, Long Beach, Los Angeles (2), and Ventura). By contrast, the hula halau came from California, Nevada, Arizona, and Hawaii.

On Saturday morning several hundred Hawaiians and “Hawaiians at heart” entered the theater in Sam’s Town Hotel and Casino to the musical welcome of Lincoln Kaio’s ukulele group, ULU. This was my fourth ULU performance at Kumukahi. I always relish strumming traditional Hawaiian songs along with the country-western classics our kumu ukulele throws in for variety. Our kumu ukulele, who grew up in Laie on Oahu’s North Shore—home of the original hukilau, he is quick to point out—radiates aloha and shares his infectious humor at public events and in class.

Festival founder kumu hula Sissy Kaio and kumu ukulele shared master of ceremonies duties, often injecting lively banter into an otherwise intense weekend of performances.

After the invocation, Sissy Kaio introduced the 19 kumu and presented each with a mahogany concert ukulele, donated by Long Beach-based Ohana Music, a major event sponsor.


For Kumukahi 2017, the required uke piece was “Ka Uluwehi o Ke Kai” (“The Plants of the Sea”) a sprightly mele (Hawaiian song) by Edith Kanaka’ole. Contestants appeared to enjoy playing it. Two additional pieces, selected by the Kumu ukulele, showcased group talents.

Between hula and ukulele performances, Uncle Lincoln, who served as co-master of ceremonies with Aunty Sis, entertained the audience with spontaneous jokes and stories in Hawaiian pidgin.

In the final hour of the event, before awards were announced, four-time Kumukahi winner, Aloha Picking Hana (not competing this year) played three selections. For two invigorating and challenging years, I have been learning fingerpicking from AOP’s kumu ukulele, Maui-born Mel Ogata. This is barely a beginning compared to the six-plus years most of AOP students have logged in his Los Angeles-area classes. This year for the first time, our kumu served as competition judge, along with Honolulu-based musician Aaron Sala.

Drum roll! This year the award (Kumukahi has no second or third places) went to Kula A’o ‘Ukulele ‘O Hokulani of Long Beach, California, under the direction of Hokulani Bray. A likely factor in the group’s win was its performance of kumu ukulele Bray’s emotion-filled composition, “Raindrops and Waterfalls,” which speaks of all the water sources in Hana, Maui.

Kula A’o ‘Ukulele ‘O Hokulani of Long Beach, California, shown with kumu ukulele Hokulani Bray, won the Group Ukulele Award in the recent Kumakahi competition. Additionally, they garnered the Hawaiian Language Award for the correct pronunciation and fluid delivery displayed in their singing.

Could this festival tempt your ukulele group? To participate, you don’t need to have a repertoire to limited to Hawaiian songs. You do need to be willing to steep yourselves in one or more Hawaiian mele for a portion of your time together. As for competing, each year Aunty Sis reminds attendees in the theater at Sam’s Town, Las Vegas: Kumukahi is, above all, a gathering that honors Hawaiian music, dance, and cultural roots. In an uplifting atmosphere, it is also an opportunity to share what we have learned.