By Diane Ako
My ukulele teacher Trey Terada suggested I tour a ukulele factory in order to gain a deeper appreciation for how the instrument is made. Since I consider him a ukulele god and I do whatever he tells me to regarding music, I agreed.
My jujitsu sensei tells us to read books about the arts. This was certainly better than being told to read a book (ha ha.)
We went to Kanile`a Ukulele in Kaneohe, which offers free public tours every weekday at 10:30 a.m. Owner and general manager Joe Souza gave us look at his operations.
Fascinating! Terada, once again, was right. I completely look at the ukulele with new eyes.
It starts outside at the milling area, where a few men are working computerized machines that cut the wood down to the 1/1000th of a millimeter. I learned mahogany is the wood of choice for best sound resonance, though they use different woods for different purposes.
In a win-win move, he partnered with guitar manufacturers to buy any wood they can’t use, which might still be perfectly good for the smaller specs of the ukulele. It saves the wood from going into the garbage, and Kanile`a has steady access to a small supply of premium wood without committing to a cost-prohibitive shipping container.
Souza launched into a speech about also sourcing wood locally, for which he has bought a small forest on Hawaii Island. He and his family travel over regularly to plant and care for koa and other woods they harvest to make their instruments.
This forced him to learn about the world of arboriculture, and he speaks about how koa foliage is one of the best plants to provide nitrogen for the understory. Who knew the craft of lutherie would take someone down the path of ecology?
We moved into the various assembly rooms to watch the instrument come together. I like bling, so I nosed through the small drawers of mother of pearl dots meant as fret board markers. The best ones, apparently, come from New Zealand, because they’re shiniest and most colorful.
I now know way more about the little instrument than I ever imagined possible! Latest technology tuning keys. A dozen different types of headstock. Different cuts to the body. My novice’s head spun with an encyclopedia of ukulele facts that so easily poured out of Souza’s mouth.
Souza also shared one major secret to his products’ high resonance. “It’s the UV-cured finish. We’re the only ukulele maker we know of that does this in Hawaii.”
He launched into a history lesson about how guitar makers were prompted by environmental concerns to find an alternative to the traditional acrylate finish which lets off harmful VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions. In 1993, Taylor Guitars found the solution in UV curing.
Kanile`a borrowed the technology, and finds the end product durable yet soft, and faster to assemble. Its thinness allows the sound to resonate loudly through the wood.
“A purist believes no finish is best, because you want to hear the vibrations through the wood, but that’s not practical over the life of the instrument. This is so thin, it’s the next best thing,” explains Souza.
It’s amazing how much knowledge one accumulates over decades of working with and around one’s passion. Maybe I know this much about my industry (maybe?), but the difference is underscored for me by my dearth of musical information.
For Souza, it comes naturally. “I’ve loved the ukulele my whole life – first as a player, then as a luthier. My parents, my seven siblings, my aunts and uncles all play the ukulele. We all bring our ukes to family parties,” he recalls.
He started formally taking lessons when he was in the fourth grade, and expanded his passion from playing ukuleles to making them when he was 20. “I apprenticed with master luthier Pete Burmudez for five years. He really taught me to think outside the box. The first ukuele I crafted with him had a concert body with a tenor scale, simply because that’s what I thought would be my ideal uke. I’m still making that today,” he says.
Burmudez taught Souza to embrace innovation, which he says is a thread that runs through his operations even today. He’s proud of creating a fingerboard with a slight radius that gives players’ fingers better access (which Terada loves.) He also brings up his TRU bracing invention that redesigned the soundboard to achieve the best tonal resonance.
He hands me a model with a soft curve on the top right. “This is the Kanile`a bevel. It serves the purpose of the traditional cutaway, which lets the player’s fingers get to the 14th fret and beyond, but it preserves more of the body.” Souza also created an armrest on the bottom left corner, softening the edge to accommodate the player’s arm.
“We’re aiming to be the Stradivarius of ukuleles. We want to create perfection,” he says of his still-young company, founded only in 1998. To hear the energy and determination in his voice, it’s clear he has the drive to do his best to make that happen.
It appears all the Kanile`a brand ukuleles are handmade right here in Kaneohe, I notice as we tour the shop. Everything is here.
“That’s right, and we like it that way,” Souza confirms. “There’s something special about making it in Hawaii. We believe mana – spirit – goes into each piece. We tell our staff to step outside and take a break if they’re in a mood when they get to work. Put your best energy into your work.”
He cradles an ukulele. “You can feel it, right? It just feels like, Wow, right? It’s inexplicable but it’s not elusive. The energy is there. We want to put the best mana into our instruments.”
To that end, Souza says he gives his employees two Daydream Breaks a day. “We are artisans. Go outside and look at nature. Give your brain a rest.”
Though his life and his livelihood are all about ukulele, he never tires of it. The same draw that compelled him to play as a child still reels him in today- and every day.
“Music is therapeutic for the soul,” he states. “I can have the most hectic day, but the minute I start playing, it makes a bad day good. It changes my whole spirit.”
Tours of Kanile`a Ukulele
Monday through Friday
10:30 a.m. (60 – 90 minutes)
46-216 Kahuhipa Street in Kaneohe
Make an appointment for group tours at (808) 234-2868 or email@example.com
Click here for more: http://kanileaukulele.com/tour.php
Want to give it a try? Check out Ukulele Club of Hawaii that Souza founded.
First Tuesday of the month
6 – 7 p.m.
Windward Mall Center Stage
Free to join, free sheet music.
Strongly recommended you bring your own ukulele, but there may be a loaner available.