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Southwest surprises flight to Hawaii with free ukulele lessons

The lessons and instruments were provided by Guitar Center.
People on a plane hold their ukuleles up in the air, smiling for a camera.
Passengers and staff hold their ukuleles on board a Southwest Airlines flight to Hawaii.Courtesy of Guitar Center and Southwest Airlines
/ Source: TODAY

Passengers on their way to Hawaii from Long Beach, California, on Friday, Sept. 16, were surprised with an in-flight ukulele lesson and jam session.

Those aboard the flight — a six-hour trip on Southwest Airlines — got a new Mitchell MU40 Soprano ukulele from Guitar Center and a free class, taught at about 30,000 feet above the ocean below.

According to a release provided to TODAY, it was the first recorded in-flight group ukulele lesson.

Alexandra Windsor, the educational affairs specialist for Guitar Center Lessons, and Ryan Miyashiro and Ryan Imata — both Guitar Center instructors at the company's store in Pearl City, Hawaii — taught passengers to play “Hello, Aloha. How are you?” from start to finish.

Passengers were also treated to a ukulele performance.
Passengers were also treated to a ukulele performance.Courtesy of Guitar Center and Southwest Airlines

“I’ve taught students through Guitar Center Lessons since 2014, but never in an airplane. It was inspiring to see how quickly passengers of all ages picked up the ukulele — many with no musical background," Windsor said in a release. "The ukulele is the perfect instrument for beginners, and it shows just how fun and easy learning something new can be."

Southwest Airlines said in a release the company was happy to celebrate Hawaiian culture and "underscore our everyday commitment to serve and celebrate the spirit of Aloha."

The ukulele — originally of Portuguese origins — arrived in Hawaii in 1879 with immigrant Joao Fernandez. Fernandez allegedly wowed natives with his "branguinha" (a small guitar with four strings and a short neck) and they were so impressed with his playing they called the instrument "ukulele," which translates to "jumping flea."

Fernandez went on to be somewhat of a local sensation — even at one point teaching King Kalākaua how to play, reportedly — and became ubiquitous across the Hawaiian Islands.

'Luau Ladies'
Women in traditional Hawaiian dress pose with guitars and ukuleles for an outdoor portrait in the 1930s.Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

In the years that followed well into present day, the instrument became a popular choice for beginners and longtime musicians as well.

Elvis Presley famously played the ukulele in the 1961 film "Blue Hawaii" and was known for "toying" with the instrument, according to Graceland.

Elvis Presley and Women from Blue Hawaii
Cast members of "Blue Hawaii."John Springer Collection / Corbis via Getty Images

In Canada, educator J. Chalmers Doane convinced the nation in the 1970s to teach their young students the instrument as a first foray into music — creating a generation of devotees.

Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwo’ole famously released his 1990 ukulele mash-up of "Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" was featured on the NBC TV juggernaut show "ER" and countless ads.

The ukulele was even featured in one of the first viral videos in 2006, when ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro played a stunning version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in Central Park.