Music for Life: The Sound of Aloha - United Hub
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Watch now: The sound of aloha

By Matt Adams, June 30, 2017

Standing inside Play4M.E.'s storefront at Honolulu's Ala Moana Center, it's hard not to notice a common tendency in the passersby: a quick glance through the window followed by a double-take and, inevitably, a smile. A room filled floor-to-ceiling with bright blue, red, green and yellow `ukuleles can have that effect on people.

Unlike its trendy neighbors in the open-air mall, Play4M.E. (short for Play for Music Education) isn't a retail outlet. That is most evident by the signs beneath the rows of `ukuleles reading PLEASE TOUCH. Instead, it's a place where anyone, regardless of skill level, can experience the joy of making music free of charge. Which is exactly what San Francisco-based Flight Attendant Leo Daquioag had in mind when he opened the place in February under the umbrella of his non-profit Music for Life Foundation.

Raised in Honolulu, Leo created Music for Life six years ago as a way to use his free time to benefit the community that has meant so much to him. "I have a lot of downtime between trips," he says, "so I was looking for ways to stay busy. I started thinking about what I have to offer and how I could give back."

A lifelong musician (for what it's worth, back in high school, his rock group the Descendants won a Honolulu "Battle of Bands"), Leo had a pretty good idea of the direction he should go. "Music has always been in my life, so I figured I could use that passion to help others."

He began by recruiting area musicians to play fundraising events, like the one that he helped organize after the 2011 Fukushima earthquake in Japan, and worked with news outlets, educators and local residents to hold instrument donation drives in support of scholastic music programs. That's when he stumbled upon a find that has helped take his mission in a new direction.

United Airlines, San Francisco-based Flight Attendant Leo Daquioag

Last year, Leo was contacted by a local teacher who mentioned having a stockpile of unused `ukuleles at her elementary school. He soon discovered a similar trove on many campuses around Oahu. "Decades ago, the State of Hawaii put them in all of our public schools," he says. "Kids who grew up on the mainland learned to play the recorder and we learned to play the `ukulele. But when funding for music and arts programs was cut, they were put away in storage. The schools had all of these instruments, but they were in disrepair because they hadn't been played for years."

In a serendipitous twist, those same instruments had been made by Kamaka Ukulele, which is owned by the family of one of Leo's close friends, Chris Kamaka. Leo asked Chris for help refurbishing the `ukuleles, and another of his pals, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, volunteered to personally repair 100 of them while on tour. Together, they were committed to getting the instruments into the hands of students who might not otherwise have the opportunity to play.

At the same time, Mike Upton, owner of Kala Ukulele in Petaluma, California, found out about Leo's work and donated more than 2,000 of their beginner models for the project. Before long, Leo had enough to outfit the Play4M.E. center in addition to several schools.

"Music identifies a culture," he says. "When kids don't get the chance to participate in that, we lose some of our humanity. The next generation of doctors and scientists need to exercise the creative side of their brains, too."

On most afternoons and weekends the Play4M.E. space is awash with sound, as kids of all ages, oftentimes accompanied by their parents, learn to play the instrument that holds such a revered place in Hawaii. In his first brick-and-mortar endeavor, Leo has gone to great lengths to foster a creative, welcoming environment in which to bring music to the masses. In May, the center even hosted its "`Ukulebrity Series," with workshops by several well-known musicians, including Kalei Gamiao, Benny Chong and Taimane Gardner.

"In Hawaii we have this word, pono," Leo says. "Pono can mean showing love, showing aloha and showing support for the community because you love it. I like that word. With the Music for Life Foundation, we want to be vehicles for musicians, organizations and for other non-profits to show pono."

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