BY SARAH MAISEL | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
August 8, 2023, is a day that will be forever felt on Maui. That’s when the wildfires began: The Olinda fire in central Maui is estimated to have burned 1,081 acres; the Kula fire, 202 acres; the Pulehu-Kihei fire, 3,200 acres; and the Lahaina fire completely destroyed the historic town, taking 2,170 acres and over 100 lives. The fires are the worst disaster in Hawaii’s modern history, and there is a long road to recovery. That said, there have been some amazing efforts already put forth to help the island, and those efforts continue to grow.
When news of the devastation first broke, there was a rallying cry from the worldwide ukulele community of “How can I help?” My husband Craig Chee and I have been in awe of the sheer number of people who have reached out to us and other players in our community to find the best ways to support relief efforts.
Craig and I visited Maui in early September to talk to people who had been affected and see how we could help directly. I don’t really have words to describe all of the emotions that were happening, but what surprised us the most was how every person we spoke with continued to hold hope and be positive. The stories we heard left us shaken, but we left confident that we would be able to help make a difference.
In the heart of the town of Lahaina stood one of the best places to go for ukulele on the Valley Isle, Lahaina Music. The entire store, including all merchandise, equipment, and family instruments was completely destroyed. Owners Jason and Vania Jerome have been helping their community since the fires broke out, volunteering to get food and supplies to others. Though their own home was spared, one of their sons was not as lucky, though he did manage to escape the fires with his life, saving others with him in his work van.
“Our intention is to rebuild, but we do not know how, and we do not know where, and we do not know when,” Jason Jerome told me. “Until then, what do we do? The answer is: ‘whatever we can.’”
Among other efforts, that “whatever” has included playing an “encouragement concert” for displaced people at a hotel using borrowed instruments. Says Jerome, “Talking with the musicians afterward—one of whom, Uncle Wilmont Kahaiali’i, lost his home and most of his gear in the fire—we decided that playing together was probably ministering to us at least as much as it was to those gathered in the lobby to listen.”
Jerome has also been volunteering at Maui Preparatory Academy, which added 150 students in the wake of the fires, helping out with their 7 a.m.rock/pop band class. “Music is amazing in its ability to get your mind to focus on something else, and to spark creativity, and ultimately, to create hope, to create success,” he says.
Many of those who live on Maui began organizing fundraisers to help others. Musician George Kahumoku—who hosts an annual slack-key guitar and ukulele workshop with his wife, Nancy (2024 will be its 26th year!), as well as a popular weekly slack-key guitar concert with guest musicians on Maui—organized a livestream event called Slack Key Show Ohana: Fire Relief Fund. The goal for the fundraiser was $100,000, and, thanks to the generosity of the people whose lives have been touched by their slack key camps and workshops, they were able to raise over $250,000.
Other musicians have been lining up to help, too. Jake Shimabukuro had a concert booked for August 16 at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, and after the fires it was decided to direct proceeds from the show to well-established local nonprofits. He was also a major part of a huge in-person and livestreamed concert at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu dubbed Maui Ola: A Benefit Concert for Maui. The event, which was created in just five days, raised over $1 million.
“It was amazing because it brought all of the different media together, all these different artists, businesses, people from the community, union workers, and the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra,” says Jake. “It was beautiful being there in person, you could feel the love and support. Everyone was there to support Maui, and everything needed to put this concert together was donated, including stage production. Every person on the crew—musicians, union workers, etc.—donated their time.” You can watch the concert and support the relief efforts at mauiola.org.
Maui-born, Na Hoku Hanohano award–winning ukulele player Kala’e Camarillo has also been playing multiple benefit concerts. Though his family’s home was spared, he is connected to so many who lost everything. On the day he heard of the fires, he wrote a song called “In the Sands of Old Lahaina,” the chorus of which goes, “She will rise/ like the sun is sure to shine/ like the ocean’s change in tide/ but until that day/ my heart is in the sands of old Lahaina.” The song is now available on Apple Music, Spotify, and other major music platforms.
Camarillo was one of the first people people Craig and I called when we decided to put on our own Music & Meals for Maui livestream benefit concert, partnering with Maui Food Bank, on September 16. The event included multiple artists and luthiers from around the world offering performances, instruments for auction, and messages of hope.
An online silent auction—hosted by The Ukulele Site and their fiscal sponsor, Four Strings at a Time—included instruments from Chuck Moore, Eric Devine, Kamaka Ukulele, KoAloha Ukulele, and others. The total amount raised was over $100,000—that includes $40,000 from the livestream alone, which is double our original goal of $20,000!
Many kids lost instruments in the fires, and Larry Santos from Ukulele Project Hawaii is working to replace as many of those as possible. His nonprofit’s goal has always been putting an ukulele in the hands of every keiki (child), and his first instrument drive after the fires began August 23 with a goal of 50 instruments. In just one week he was able to deliver 80 ukuleles to those in need, thanks in large part to receiving instruments from The Ukulele Site, Leolani Ukulele, Easy Music, and private citizens who donated directly to Ukulele Project Hawaii.
It took two days as he traveled all over the island to hand out ukes to kids who lost instruments. He says the whole process was inspiring, but also heart-wrenching, as every family had a story to tell in showing their appreciation. Santos plans to continue his instrument drives at least through December. His next drive will include instruments for adults as well.
Through the tragedy, it has been inspiring to watch people rally for one another. Just within our own ukulele community, we have seen luthiers donating beautiful handmade instruments for auctions, artists donating their time for relief concerts, and the general public offering their homes to those who have been displaced. One theme that has been a constant is how big an impact our little instrument can make in people’s lives. The work to rebuild is not over, however.
Please consider helping, or continuing to help, those in need. Whether it’s making a monetary donation to one the organizations mentioned in this article, donating a ukulele to an instrument drive, or contributing another form of aid, every little bit helps.
In addition to the resources mentioned in this article, here are some more ways to help with Maui wildfire relief: