During a 1995 festival at Kapiolani Park, Alvin Okami went on stage and strummed his instrument. To the bewilderment of the crowd, the sound was emanating from a Lilliputian-size, 5½-inch ‘ukulele, which was an exact replica of a normal size soprano. The tuners, the fret board, the body and every detail was hand-crafted by Okami, a musician-turned-inventor-turned “mad man.”
“People thought he was scratching his chest,” recalls son Paul Okami, who now works alongside his brother Alan, mom Pat and dad Alvin at KoAloha ‘Ukulele. “He started with an acrylic business and then in 1995, he just decided he wanted to make ‘ukulele—but not the normal size like all other ‘ukulele. He started with the design of our logo, which I didn’t realize incorporated a ‘ukulele until a customer told me that he thought it was a cool. And that was 10 years after making these ‘ukulele.”
For the past two decades, the ‘ukulele has gained much more street credibility and moved light years from Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips, thanks to all the attention that renowned artists have endowed upon the four-string, two-octave mini lute. No musical instrument more quickly conjures Hawai‘i and its famous tropical imagery than the ‘ukulele. Pronounced ooh-koo-leh-leh (not “you-koo-lay-lay”), this four-stringed relative of the guitar is an offshoot of the Portuguese cavaquinho. Brought to Hawai‘i in 1879 by immigrants from Madeira Island—part of an autonomous archipelago off the coast of Portugal—the little instrument quickly caught on here. Hawai‘i’s king at that time, the well-traveled and sophisticated David Kalākaua, took a liking to the sound of the diminutive string instrument and had it incorporated into performances for the royal court. So rapid was its rise to popularity that within 10 years of its arrival in the Islands, the ‘ukulele became Hawai‘i’s most popular musical instrument. Over the years, the original Portuguese design evolved in Hawai‘i with a look and sound of its own, and the modern ‘ukulele was born.
Taking a tour at the KoAloha shop, Paul Okami describes the process of making a ‘ukulele, which starts at his workstation where he mills raw boards of koa. He then must determine which pieces will eventually become the body, the sides and the neck.
“It’s like being a sushi chef who gets a piece of ahi and he has to decide what cuts will become what,” Okami explains. “They’re grading the fish but in my case, I’m grading the wood.”
It takes nimble fingers to play the ‘ukulele well. One story about the origin of its name says the word ‘ukulele, meaning “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, was chosen because the fingers of a quick and dexterous ‘ukulele player appear to be “flying” off of the strings. In the early 20th century, the ‘ukulele gained fame around the world and eventually became an iconic emblem of Hawai‘i, thanks to the Waikīkī Beach Boys and songs by Cliff Edwards (who was nicknamed “Ukulele Ike”) in the 1920s. By the 1960s, millions of ‘ukulele had been sold across the United States. Today, annual ‘ukulele festivals are held in Los Angeles, Portland, New York City, and even as far away as Belgium, and vintage ‘ukulele can be found in museums throughout the world.
The instruments can vary greatly in quality, appearing as inexpensive, mass-produced toys for children or costing thousands of dollars when made from prized koa wood.
KoAloha’s ‘ukuleles are somewhere in between. In the showroom, a timeline on the wall captures the different types and progression of the KoAloha ‘ukulele, including a “Masterpiece Collection” that consists of the “Pineapple Sunday,” named so because of the pineapple skin design on the face; the “Scepter,” which resembles a king’s staff; the “Juke Box” looks just as its name suggests; and the “Gamba” includes a Japanese flag to honor the family’s heritage, as well as to commemorate those who died in the 2011 Fukushima earthquake-tsunami disaster.
“There are three remaining spots,” says Okami, pointing to the empty slots on the wall. “Dad’s still working on them. I’m sure he’ll be working here until the very end.”
Common types of ‘ukulele include soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The 21-inch-long soprano, often called “standard” in Hawai‘i, is the second smallest of its kind (only slightly larger than the rare sopranino, also called piccolo, bambino or “pocket ‘uke”) and was the original size. The concert size (23” long) was developed in the 1920s as an enhanced soprano, slightly larger and louder with a deeper tone. Shortly thereafter, the tenor (26” long)—the most popular among professional musicians—was created, having more volume and deeper bass tone. The baritone (28” long) was introduced in the 1940s, and the contrabass and bass are recent innovations, 2010 and 2014, respectively.
“My dad wanted to keep making those mini ‘ukulele but my mom, thank god, finally convinced him to make the regular size soprano,” says Okami, who lost part of his thumb in 1998 while milling a piece of wood. “We introduced the concert size six months later and then the tenor six to eight months after.”
While other luthiers across the islands create expensive, custom ‘ukulele, the Okamis’ KoAloha ‘ukulele are moderately priced—considering the handcrafted quality—and widely accessible. The latter has always been important to Alvin Okami, who once said, “The ‘ukulele alone can mend the heart, can encourage, can bring laughter, hope, joy to whoever plays it from age 3 to 90; there’s no other instrument that comes even close to bringing such enjoyment.”
Bringing enjoyment in people’s lives is a shared goal with the ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i, a nonprofit organization whose members span across the Hawaiian Islands and the globe with a single common passion: the beloved ‘ukulele.
“We share with the public ideas and experiences that have to do with making ‘ukulele because builders who make [them] have made a tremendous contribution to ‘ukulele,” says ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i president Kimo Hussey. “They’re making ‘ukulele sound better, look better and easier to play. So one of the things we’ve done in our organization is to promote building high quality ‘ukulele. Some of the builders in our guild are reputed and acknowledged to be among the best in the world.”
Count the Okami family among them.
“The ‘ukulele is a simple four-string instrument but it’s the ‘chosen instrument,’” Alvin Okami says. “Because of all of the world pressures today, there is a strong desire in everybody’s heart to want to have relief, release and encouragement.”
KoAloha tours are available Monday through Friday at 1 p.m.