New Ukulele Festival on Rarotonga

The first Ukulele Festival on the island of Rarotonga, Cook Isalnds, will be held from March 16 to 21, 2019, and will set out to showcase all the unique styles and sounds of the instrument.

It is an initiative by ukulele enthusiasts in the Cook Islands who want to enhance the culture of ukulele into a festival of celebration, with the overall aim of enjoyment by participation. So far the organizers have received 16 registrations. They say keen ukulele players from other countries have also shown interest, with further numbers to be confirmed nearer to the event.

The highlight of the festival will be a planned ukulele orchestra evening when every ukulele player is expected to take part in the finale of the Golden Ukulele Awards. This award will be presented to a ukulele artist in recognition of their extraordinary contribution to the ukulele instrument and its music.

The festival events will include the Punanga Nui Market for the opening and Vaiana’s for a Concert under the Stars. The Festival Expo Finale Concert will be held at the National Auditorium.

One of the most famous Cook Islanders to play the ukulele is Jake Numanga. Papa Jake serenades arriving and departing travelers at the airport. He must have performed to well over a million people since he first started singing there in 1980. With his ukulele, Jake stands next to the baggage carousel or the boarding gate and sings traditional Cook Islands songs, American classics like Leaving on a Jet Plane, or whatever else he thinks his captive audience will enjoy. No matter what time of the day or night it is, Jake will be there for you.

In 2011 Jake received the ANZ-sponsored “Most Outstanding Contribution to Tourism Award.” He has received a number of other accolades both before and since then, but his biggest reward, he says, is the pleasure he sees his music bringing, especially to Cook Islanders returning home.

Upon arriving to Rarotonga at five in the morning in 2002, I snapped this photo of Jake performing:


Jake Numanga performing in 2002, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

Ukulele History

Believe it or not, the ukulele isn’t a native or ancient instrument: it started with Portuguese immigrants to Hawaii in the late 19th century. The largest wave of Portuguese immigration lasted about 30 years, and 11,000 Portuguese immigrants would arrive in its first decade.

The ukulele is not a direct descendant of any particular instrument; rather it is a hybrid, most likely of the machete and the five-string rajão. These instruments are all in a family of small guitar-like instruments dating from the 18th century. These and similar forms are still popular throughout Latin America, Spain and Portugal. These and other European instruments were originally imported into Hawaii by the immigrants, and continued to be imported through the late 19th century, even after local makers started building their own.

The little instrument became an almost instant hit among the native Hawaiians. Even the royal family of Hawaii took to playing it. In part because of their patronage and also the use of native woods and materials, Hawaiians took to it and soon developed their own musical style and sound around it. Native Hawaiians opened their own manufacturing shops in the first decade of the 20th century.


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