Put up your ukes for an island celebration

Mainlanders, you’re mispronouncing “ukulele.”

If you’re not from the Hawaiian islands, there’s a good chance you call the traditional instrument a “you-coo-lay-lee.” In fact, the proper way to say it is “eww-coo-lay-lay.”

And that’s your first Hawaiian culture lesson. Come to the Lei Day Polynesian festival this weekend for two days worth of lessons in the customs, culture, food and music of our 50th state.

The downtown festival, sponsored by the California Hotel, is in its 16th year. The Aloha Spirit will be on full display, along with local and popular Hawaiian performers. Miss Aloha Hula, Manalani Mili Hokoana English, will make a special appearance at the festival Saturday, says Kevin Kaneshiro, spokesman for Vacations Hawaii, a Boyd Gaming Corp. company that flies Hawaiians to Las Vegas every week.

English won the coveted crown at last month’s Merrie Monarch hula festival, a longtime tradition in the Hawaiian islands.

Local resident Madeline Yamada — known as Auntie Makalina to her students — will sing and lead a band of 30 or so ukulele players at the festival. This will be her eighth year participating.

The Lei Day festival is an important event for the local Hawaiian population, which is at least 50,000 strong, Yamada says. It provides people a chance to reconnect with old friends who are visiting from the islands.

Yamada started playing the ukulele when she was a small girl. Hula dance followed. Now, she teaches others to play the island instrument at the Las Vegas Senior Center.

Ray Lui, one of Yamada’s best ukulele students, started taking lessons from her in 2005. He has since developed a love of hula, too. Both are traditional pursuits that Hawaiians usually take up as children, he says.

Portuguese immigrants introduced the ukulele to Hawaiians during the 1800s, Lui says. It has since become an ubiquitous sound in Hawaiian music. Roughly translated, ukulele means “jumping flea.”

Lei Day has been an important festival for Hawaiians since it was created in the 1920s.

Lui remembers making leis out of everything.

Las Vegas is often called the ninth island because it is such a popular destination with Hawaiians, Kaneshiro says. And the California is a popular hotel with those visitors. Boyd Gaming and Las Vegas became linked to Hawaii about 45 years ago when Sam Boyd bought the hotel. He had lived in Hawaii in the past and knew that his friends enjoyed visiting Las Vegas, Kaneshiro says.

So he started offering hotel and flight specials to people who visited from the islands. Vacations Hawaii’s charter flight carries 218 people to Las Vegas four times each week.

The festival will be held at the California Hotel from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. There will be live music and dance; artists; craftsmen; and traditional Hawaiian food vendors will sell their goods.

Paid events, including a dance competition and concerts, will be held, too. Admission varies. For more information, visit thecal.com, or call 702-385-1222.

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.