Recap: Hawai’i Island ‘Ukulele Retreat 2017

Mid-October is always a fun time for me. For the past five years I’ve been participating in the Hawai’i Island ‘Ukulele Retreat. It’s a week-long getaway for students (and instructors) packed with ongoing classes, one-off workshops, band practices, concerts, and an epic beach BBQ/jam.

Like the previous two years before this one, the HIUR was held at the lovely Kohala Inn and HUB. The staff lineup for 2017 was Kevin Carroll, Gerald Ross, Lady Ipo, Kaliko Beamer-Trapp, Konabob Stoffer, Elaine DeMan, and yours truly. What a great crew! I’ve never been to a workshop where the instructors – as well as the students – gelled as much as we did this past week in Hawi.

Kaliko, Kevin, and myself:

After a great instructor jam the opening night, I started right off the next morning teaching level 2 players. We covered so much ground over the whole week! Chord shapes, rhythm feels, timing, strums, chord tricks, and a ton more.

They just kept on asking questions and never seemed to quite run out of steam (as often happens in multi-part classes). Engaged and driven students are my favorite so, needless to say, this group was a joy to teach!


I had the second session of the morning free all week. So on Monday I figured I’d see what Kevin Carroll was up to with his Uke-stra class. My plan was to just audit. That way I could use my free time to experience what each instructor had to share. But right away I was wrangled into playing first-chair ‘ukulele for a Tchaikovsky piece!

It was fortunate turn of events and I spent all week with the “Sweatbox 7” (as we called ourselves), working on the fascinating, intertwining lines that make up a classical score.

I don’t often read music. And I certainly never do it to actually play a part! The whole experience made me listen to music – especially orchestral music – in a new way. And, of course, Kevin is a fabulous teacher.

I really liked his extra-large, cardstock conductor’s score:

Totally dig seeing under the hood of a piece of music. #firstchairuke

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“Tab Writing”

My afternoon class was about writing tab – a new workshop for me to teach. I had a smaller group for this session, but the students worked diligently all week to understand the concepts of blending melody and harmony by working it out on tablature.

Usually solo arranging has its own workshop, but it fit nicely with the whole “tab” thing and I’m not mean enough to make people sit and transcribe songs for five days straight! Everyone seemed stoked and I feel like the class was a complete success.

Concert/Nightly Activities

Every night of the Hawai’i Island ‘Ukulele Retreat there’s something going on! We followed up the opening night jam with a more organized, on-stage version Monday night. Visually, I think “more organized” just meant dressing up, but wow! We were on fire musically and had some awesome moments (like a one-chord jam led by Kevin and some fabulous steel playing by Gerald).

Tuesday night ended up being smaller group or solo performances (Lady Ipo, Kaliko, Konabob; myself and Kevin; and the esteemed Gerald Ross). Such talented people I get to hang out with!

Wednesday we went to the beach for a sunset BBQ. Everybody jammed and sang their hearts out along with gaining some Hawaiian perspective on the local area and canoe sailing.

Because sometimes the timid players get sidelined at jams, I suggested incorporating a Hawaiian-style kani ka pila Thursday night. We formed a big circle and jammed our way around giving everyone a chance to lead a tune, if inclined. It’s always exciting to see students stepping out of their comfort zone and the kani was a hit.

Finally, the week capped off with the open mic/battle of the bands on Friday. Every year this is a chance for students to perform and also the presentation of the band songs each assigned group has been working on all week. The props and costumes were a little conservative compared to previous years, but the music was impressive!

Each year at the Hawai’i Island ‘Ukulele Retreat seems to get better and better. Hope to see you there next year!

By Brad Bordessa

I’m an ‘ukulele artist from Honoka’a, Hawai’i, where I run this site from a little plantation house in the jungle. I’ve taught workshops internationally, made Herb Ohta Jr. laugh until he cried, and once borrowed a uke to jam with HAPA onstage in my boardshorts. More about me