Arts & Culture

Ukulele group brings celebration of Hawaii’s first king to the mainland

Olympia Aloha Ukulele Pu’ukani is an open group of ukulele enthusiasts with a special emphasis on Hawaiian music and culture. The name OLY-A was selected because it sounded like Oli-e, “Rejoice” in Hawaiian, and is a reference to our hometown of Olympia. The group will be celebrating King Kamehameha Day on Wednesday at the Lacey Timberland Library.
Olympia Aloha Ukulele Pu’ukani is an open group of ukulele enthusiasts with a special emphasis on Hawaiian music and culture. The name OLY-A was selected because it sounded like Oli-e, “Rejoice” in Hawaiian, and is a reference to our hometown of Olympia. The group will be celebrating King Kamehameha Day on Wednesday at the Lacey Timberland Library. Courtesy of Olympia Aloha Ukulele Pu'ukani

Ever wish, maybe while obsessing over a royal wedding, that the U.S. had its own royalty?

Well, it does — or did, at least. Hawaii was a monarchy for more than 80 years, beginning in 1810 when King Kamehameha I united the islands.

“It’s a part of our American history that we never study,” said Diane Kurzyna, aka Ruby Re-Usable, of the local ukulele group Oly-A UP. “They’ll teach you in history books that there never was a king in the United States. Yes, there was. Hawaii had kings and queens.”

On Wednesday, the Oly-A UP (the Olympia Aloha Ukulele Pu’ukani) will celebrate King Kamehameha Day at the Lacey Timberland Library with music, dance, flower leis, snacks and a mini parade. The official holiday — a state holiday in Hawaii that is celebrated with parades, festivals and more — is June 11.

The ukulele enthusiasts — a mixture of native Hawaiians, former Hawaii residents and locals who simply love the islands and their music — also will share information about the monarch, still revered in Hawaii, and about the state’s history and culture.

“It’s a great opportunity to get some facts about Kamehameha out to the public in Olympia,” said Byron Yoshina, who spent most of his life on the island of Hawaii, known as the Big Island. “It’s an educational opportunity.”

“We don’t want the program to be just ‘ha, ha, look at the funny Hawaiians in their funny shirts,” Kurzyna added.

Kamehameha I was known for his compassion, said Yoshina, who moved to Olympia in 2006 to be close to his daughter, Eileen Yoshina.

“At that time, Hawaii was a very dark dangerous place,” Byron Yoshina said of the era of Kamehameha I. “There were a lot of rivalries between groups, so it was pretty dangerous to be on the road. … After he became king of the island, he decreed that women and children and elderly people would be left alone under the penalty of death.”

Hawaii was a monarchy until 1893, when Queen Liliuokalani was forced to abdicate under pressure from businessmen and sugar-plantation owners. The islands were annexed by the U.S. five years later and became a state in 1959. Yet the annexation continues to be a subject of controversy in Hawaii, Kurzyna and Yoshina said.

And the first king continues to be a major figure — literally as well as figuratively. Statues of the king in the islands, and one in Washington, D.C., are draped with flower leis for Kamehameha Day, said Philette Lihu’e Hamakua-Ling, another member of Oly-A UP and a native Hawaiian who grew up on Molokai.

“Kamehameha Day is one of the biggest celebrations in HawaiI,” Hamakua-Ling told The Olympian. “I would compare it to Martin Luther King Day, as it is a day to celebrate his life and honor him as the ruler who brought all major eight islands under one rule.”

“The biggest thing that occurs is the parades,” Yoshina said. “In Honolulu, they would have a huge parade, and people spent days getting ready. They would decorate floats with flowers, almost like the Rose Parade, and they would select a king of the event and also a queen.

“It’s kind of like the Fourth of July,” he added. “People maybe have barbecues, go to the beach, all that kind of stuff.”

King Kamehameha Day

  • What: Celebrate Hawaii’s first king, the man who united the islands, with Oly-A UP (Olympia Aloha Ukulele Pu’ukani). The ukulele group will play, sing, dance and lead a mini-parade as well as sharie stories about Kamehameha (pronounced ka-MAY-uh-MAY-uh).
  • When: 7:30 p.m. June 12
  • Where: Lacey Timberland Library, 500 College St. SE
  • Admission: Free
  • More information: trl.org