Star-Bulletin Features

Samuel Kamaka works on an ukulele at Kamaka 'Ukuleles downtown.

‘Ukulele revolution

Design innovations reflect a new
high-energy breed of players more
likely to pound than pluck

By Janine Tully
Special to the Star-Bulletin

"You get a special piece of wood that has been lovingly crafted by an expert and combine it with someone who knows how to play, and you're in for a treat. The sound will be like ear candy, so sweet, so nahenahe." -- Ron Loo, WCC music instructor

The ukulele, so small yet so versatile. You can strum it Hawaiian style or finger-pick it to create sophisticated solo arrangements, from classical and contemporary to slack key, Jawaiian and jazz.

That this little wooden instrument can create such a wide range of sounds is no surprise to consummate players like Byron Yasui, Jake Shimabukuro and the inimitable Herb Ohta, who have expanded on the instrument's repertoire and playing style. It is also no surprise to luthiers who tailor their instrument to accommodate innovative playing styles.

Two generations of Kamaka Ukuleles from left: Casey Kamaka, Casey's dad Samuel Kamaka, who co-owns the company with brother Frederick Kamaka Sr. and Frederick Kamaka Jr.

"Musicians are always looking for something different besides the basic generic brand, and the selection of wood and design all comes into play into building the instrument," says Casey Kamaka of the famed Kamaka family lineage.

Ukulele aficionados who want to learn the nitty-gritty of uke making and playing can attend "Ukulele 2002: A Weekend with the Master," Saturday and Sunday at Windward Community College in Kaneohe. Sponsored by WCC's Hawaii Music Institute, the event will cover everything you wanted to know about the uke, from its history and craftsmanship to playing styles and beginning and advanced performing and promotion tips.

Leading the "Ukulele Makers" class are Casey Kamaka, Alan Okami of KoAloha 'Ukulele, Mike Chock of Hana Lima 'Ukulele and Derek Shimizu of G String 'Ukulele Co. They will offer tips on types of woods, design, construction, timbre and more.

Sessions on playing techniques, history and vocal styling will be taught by some of Hawaii's top entertainment artists, including Yasui, Sonny Kamahele, Bryan Tolentino, Brother Noland, Melveen Leed and Aunty Genoa Keawe.

'Ukulele 2002: A Weekend with the Master'

Where: Windward Community College, 45-720 Keaahala Road
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday (workshops followed by pupus and kanikapila), and 9:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. Sunday (workshops followed by hoike and luau)
Admission: $150 both days, including luau; or $85 per day, plus $15 for luau
Call: 235-7396 or 235-7433

THE RESURGENCE of the ukulele in the past decade has spawned a new wave of makers who have noticed an increase in demand for off-the-shelf and custom-crafted ukes.

"A lot of people see musicians with customized ukes and want something that looks and sounds like it," says Kamaka, whose family business produces close to 400 instruments a month. The company is keeping up with the demand for standard/soprano ukes, but has a waiting period of six months for special orders.

Luthiers also are making slight modifications in structural design to accommodate a new breed of players who have a more aggressive approach -- a style initiated by the likes of Jesse Kalima and Peter Moon, who added a more driving beat.

Musicians are not playing just backyard chalang-alang, says Okami. "The ukulele has become a solo instrument with a more sophisticated sound."

Ron Loo, who teaches ukulele and guitar at Windward, sees an increased interest in contemporary styles, too.

"There's a clamor for more jazz, blues and reggae," says Loo, who tells his students that they don't have to pound their instruments to create volume.

Hawaii's ukulele wunderkind Jake Shimabukuro "plays so hard, he gets so involved, he's hard on the instrument," says Kamaka, noting that the performer wore holes in one of his spruce-top ukes.

To adjust to this new crop of feisty players, Kamaka is adding more braces on some of its models for durability. He is watchful, though, about not disrupting the delicate balance between tone and strength. "You have to know how many braces to use and where to place them so as not to compromise the sound," says Kamaka.

Okami, whose streamlined design seems to say less is more, keeps braces to a minimum, opening up the sound and letting "the uke sing as free as it wants." His ukes are made solely of koa, including the braces, and he takes pride in using single pieces for tops, bottoms and sides. Okami relies on a technique dating back to the 1930s for his single-piece side wraps.

"We don't book-match because the board can change its personality within inches, and that's part of the beauty of working with koa," says Okami. "It's very dynamic, almost rebellious, but treat her right and the end result is wonderful."

Okami attributes some of his design skills to his father's attention to detail and love of music. The senior Okami manufactures plastic products, including food reproductions for restaurant displays, and plays the oboe. Inspired by the popularity of the ukulele, and encouraged by friends Herb Ohta and Roy Sakuma, he began crafting 5-inch ukes as a hobby in 1995. The collectible miniatures can be seen and heard at the House of 'Ukulele in Waikiki.

Building on his father's music background and technical know-how, Okami has turned what started as a hobby into a successful business, with an eight-month waiting period for his instruments.

Other KoAloha trademarks include a five-point headstock, a "musubi-shaped" sound hole and laser-engraved logo showing a ukulele and the letter K back to back.

SHIMIZU OF G Strings Ukulele fills a niche in the industry for performers. His ukulele come equipped with pickups and internal electronics for musicians like Kelly Boy Delima who can walk on stage, plug in and play. He also offers clientele a range of wood choices -- from the traditional koa to rosewood, mahogany, maple and mango, with its swirling purplish hues.

"People come in and they've never seen mango wood; they've eaten the fruit," says Shimizu. Then they see the colorful grain of the wood and go, "Ooh, mango."

However, koa is still king.

The Kamaka Ohta model made of koa wood, has rope and maple binding, an ebony fretboard and bridge. At right, a mother of pearl inlay at the headstock.

Says Kamaka, "We've tried other local woods -- mango, monkeypod, milo -- but they don't compare with the tone quality, richness and luster that koa gives." Koa also gives players that crisp, sprightly sound associated with traditional Hawaiian music, say makers.

Endemic to Hawaii, koa has been the wood of preference ever since Samuel K. Kamaka started carving ukuleles in the basement of his house in Kaimuki and selling them for $5 apiece in 1916. The instruments were styled after the braguinha, a small four-string instrument brought by the Portuguese to the islands in the late 1800s. They quickly gained popularity among Hawaiians, who named it ukulele (jumping flea).

A quality ukulele now sells for $350 to $1,500, depending on the design, wood, inlay, binding and other ornamentation. Kamaka's standard Ohta San model, created for Herb Ohta and popularized in the '60s, sells for about $1,200. It is styled after the bell-shape, dreadnaught guitar, and features an ebony fretboard, binding and rosette made of ebony and maple, and a mother-of-pearl logo. Special orders made from spruce, mahogany and rosewood can go for up to $3,000.

"It can get expensive," Kamaka acknowledges.

Sizes come in standard, concert, tenor and baritone, featuring four, six and eight strings.

The Kamakas still make the famed pineapple ukulele of the early 1900s with its unique oblong shape. Built by Sam K. Kamaka, the founder of the Kamaka line, the pineapple ukes were easier to shape and produced a robust sound. The ukes are still a novelty and are as fun to look at as they are to play.

WHEN IT COMES TO selecting wood for the soundboard, the straighter the grain, the better. The sought-after curly koa is not always a first choice with makers, particularly for tops. The wood does not have the stability that a straighter grain has, and differences in the grain may affect the way the instrument resonates, makers say.

Still, the beauty of curly koa, with its deep auburn colors and wavy, three-dimensional grain, is hard to ignore.

Shimabukuro, who usually plays on a spruce-top, had Kamaka build an all-koa model for a more traditional, light, crisp Hawaiian sound. For this model, Kamaka took full advantage of the rich patterns found in curly koa.

Alan Okami of KoAloha 'Ukulele inspects an instrument in the making.

From the delivery of the logs to the first plucked tones, the process involved in creating these diminutive instruments can be lengthy. Kamaka cures the logs outside the family's South Street shop for up to five years before the building process begins. And on stormy days, construction comes to a halt because moisture in the air causes the wood to swell.

While the manufacturing process is partly mechanized, makers still shape, mold, glue, sand and finish the instruments by hand. The process can be painstakingly exacting with tops, backs and sides cut to the precise thinness, with measurements within thousandths of an inch. "If a top is too thick, it will sound like a rock, 'tock, tock'; if it's cut too thin, it will sound hollow," says Kamaka.

Then there are necks, fretboards, nuts, saddles and bridges to consider, as well as the final stringing and tuning. Once finished, these wooden gems beckon to be played.

Luthiers hope the weekend workshop will not only teach participants the rudimentaries of uke building, but give them a better appreciation of their musical heritage.

"The most important thing is to keep the instrument alive and to make music," says Shimizu.

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