Family’s love for the ukulele started small
A decade ago, just about the only thing Alvin Okami and his sons Alan and Paul knew about the ukulele was that it has four strings.
If You Go...
What: KoAloha Ukulele factory tour
Address: 744 Kohou St., Unit K
When: 10 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; reservations required
Cost: $15 for adults, $10 children ages 5 through 12; includes a make-your-own souvenir. Minimum of six people; maximum of 15.
Web site: www.koaloha.com
Today, overseeing the production of more than 200 ukuleles per month, they literally know the instrument from the inside out. Their company, KoAloha Ukulele, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, and the Okamis not only have become skilled ukulele craftsmen, they've also learned to play the instrument with aplomb.
Visitors are welcomed to KoAloha's factory in Kapalama for an hour-long tour full of information and aloha. While you're there, you'll likely meet most of the Okami ohana: mom Patricia, the company's president; vice presidents Alan and Alvin, who's affectionately known as Papa KoAloha; Paul, shop supervisor and manager of custom orders; and toddlers Egan (Alan's son) and Noah (Paul's son).
After a brief orientation in the showroom, you'll spend 10 minutes making a KoAloha keepsake. Then you're escorted next door to the 2,000-square-foot factory where you'll see the ukulele-making process, from selecting and drying precious koa planks and cutting and shaping them, to attaching the neck, fret board, bridge and strings, then polishing and tuning the finished instrument. Before being delivered to some 350 stores throughout Hawaii, the mainland and Japan, every ukulele is tested by Alvin, Alan or Paul.
INSTEAD OF ONE guide on this tour, you'll have several. Stopping at each station on the production line, you'll meet the staff member working there, who'll explain his job, answer questions and allow a close-up look at what he's doing.
The tour concludes with a lively number performed by the Okami men strumming KoAloha ukuleles, of course.
"We have a lot of fun doing the tour," says Alan. "It's definitely not a moneymaker for us, but we want to give something back to the community and offer visitors something different to do on their vacation. There aren't too many tours of working factories available in Hawaii, and from the feedback we've received, it seems most people don't realize how much work goes into making an ukulele."
Praised for their beauty, craftsmanship and sound quality, KoAloha ukuleles are selling out faster than the Okamis and their staff of four can make them. Six Na Hoku Hanohano award winners rank among their loyal customers: Raiatea Helm, Melveen Leed, Herb Ohta Jr., Daniel Ho, David Kamakahi and Brittni Paiva, the 17-year-old sensation from Hilo.
Alvin Okami's KoAloha Ukulele factory all started with the idea for a tiny 5 1/2-inch novelty ukulele that can be tuned and played.
KOALOHA'S SUCCESS is due in large part to the vision of Alvin, an inventor, musician, singer, composer/arranger, artist, craftsman and graphic and industrial designer whose career path included a stint from 1971 to 1980 as the first-chair oboist with the Royal Hawaiian Band.
In the early 1970s, Alvin launched Commercial Music Hawaii, which gave him the opportunity to write radio and TV jingles for clients such as Woolworth and Koko Marina Center.
He closed Commercial Music Hawaii in 1981, and for the next 15 years took a break from music to pursue another venture, Precision Plastics Hawaii. Manufacturing plastic household goods enabled him to branch out creatively; among the products he invented were the Spam musubi mold and the Tube Press toothpaste tube squeezer.
In late 1994, Alvin's friend Herb Ohta Sr., the renowned ukulele virtuoso, suggested that he craft a miniature ukulele. The idea intrigued him even though Alvin didn't know how to play the ukulele and had never taken any ukulele-making classes.
Realizing he needed to examine some fine examples, he asked Roy Sakuma, another buddy and ukulele master, if he could borrow his instruments. "He brought me his Martins, his Kamakas, his Gibsons, his Nakanishis, all these beautiful ukuleles," Alvin said. "I opened boxes and boxes of ukuleles, one at a time, got out my dentist's mirror, looked in the sound holes and studied how they were made. Then I said, 'OK, I think I can do it!'"
It took him six months to figure out the process, to design and build the little machines, and to craft the miniature uke. "Everything was Menehune size," he says, laughing.
That tiny ukulele, the prototype for today's KoAloha, measured a mere 5 1/2 inches. It was accurate down to the smallest detail and, even more amazing, could be tuned and played.
By that time, Alvin had taught himself to play the ukulele, and, at Sakuma's urging, he performed "Hilo March" and "Jingle Bell Rock" at the 1995 Ukulele Festival at Kapiolani Park.
He was a big hit and, thus, KoAloha Ukulele was born. With help from his sons, Alvin began manufacturing full-size ukuleles based on what he had learned from making the mini-uke.
FOR THE THREE Okami men, it was the start of a love affair with the ukulele that has never waned.
"Part of the ukulele's appeal is its versatility," Alan says. "You can play all kinds of music on it, from classical to jazz. You can pick out melodies; you can do so much more than just strum it.
"The ukulele also is portable. You can throw it in the trunk of your car and still have plenty of room for the food you're taking to the potluck. The ukulele brings people together. If you're at a party and someone picks up an ukulele, everybody gathers around and starts singing. It turns into one big happy jam session."
Many exciting things are in store as KoAloha enters its second decade. The Okamis hope to partner with the private sector and the state Department of Education to integrate ukulele music into the elementary school curriculum.
"The public schools have been using the flutophone for the music segment of their curriculum for years. Using the ukulele would be so much better," says Alan. "Unlike the flutophone, which has only one scale, the ukulele has four strings that can teach kids much more than a single-line melody. The ukulele is synonymous with Hawaii, and it would be great if our children could not only learn its history, but learn how to play it."
New products also are on the horizon. There currently are nine models in the KoAloha family, including the recently released D-6 tenor ukulele, which has six strings tuned to different pitches. This allows the musician to play chords that can't be produced on a standard ukulele.
Soon to be unveiled is the entry-level KoAlana, which is being manufactured in China out of mahogany.
"It will retail for about $175 compared to the KoAloha, which ranges from the mid-$300s to $1,000," says Alan. "Even though it will be our basic line, we are so confident about its quality, it will carry the same lifetime warranty as the KoAloha ukuleles."
Also coming out soon is Pineapple Sunday, the first line in KoAloha's new Papa KoAloha's Masterpiece Collection. "It's in the shape of a pineapple, and the idea for the design came to me on a Sunday, so that's why it's called Pineapple Sunday," says Alvin.
There will be three models in the Pineapple Sunday line, each featuring a unique textured image of a pineapple. Priced at about $1,500, the first model will be the most affordable.
Says Alvin, "Six other lines in the Masterpiece Collection are going to be introduced over a period of time, and every instrument in the collection is going to be handmade by me. They're going to be expensive -- ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 -- but I already have a waiting list for them that's growing daily."
Besides the original Pineapple Sunday, Alvin has about 50 ukuleles in his private collection.
"My wife would like to get rid of some of them because there's not enough room at our house to keep them all," he says. "But I can't bear to part with any of them because they're the prototypes; they're evidence of all the developmental stages. They represent KoAloha's history and you don't throw away history. You preserve and treasure it."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.