BY EDDIE SCHER | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Subtle, beautiful woods, with nothing distracting from its focus on tone—that was my first impression of the new Kanile`a Oha-T tenor. Just like the unadorned vintage Style 0’s of classic mainland builders from places like Nazareth and Kalamazoo, this is a ukulele made for players.
Kanile`a is a Hawaiian ukulele builder known for high-end, professional, and breathtaking custom instruments. They introduced the Oha line of more affordable Hawaiian-made all-solid wood models at the annual NAMM trade show for musical instruments in January 2019.
The first thing I noticed on the Oha-T tenor was the wide, 1.5-inch nut that gives just a little more space for your fingers between strings than you get on most ukuleles. It’s light and nicely balanced; I usually like playing with a strap and I figured I would want one for this tenor, but I didn’t miss it. I also liked that the long fingerboard allows you to fret all the way up the neck to the soundhole. It may not be completely musical playing at the 19th fret, but let’s face it, there’s nothing more vaudeville than going up to hit a few notes in the dog whistle range. On the Oha-T, the compensated saddle means that intonation remains pitch-perfect for every note on the fretboard.
When I hear that this ukulele is the most affordable in Kanile`a’s lineup of instruments, I think of Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, James Carville, who said (to paraphrase), “It’s the tone, stupid.” Binding, purfling, and other trim look great, but they don’t affect the sound or playability, except sometimes to get in the way.
And the tone is that classic warm, breezy Hawaiian koa sound. I’m a trad-jazz guy and my first instinct is to try and coax a punchy, vintage mahogany sound out of any ukulele I pick up. This instrument challenged me to take advantage of the Oha’s sweet tone and longer sustain. I ended up fingerpicking through Andy Iona and Sam Cooke tunes, and soon found that this is an instrument for accompanying a voice, picking through chords, and filling a quiet room with sound.
The light top is lively; you can feel the instrument resonate. Tap it and you hear the result of the TRU bracing system, a design Kanile`a’s Joe Souza developed that uses triangular cutouts in the braces to balance strength with the flexibility that the top needs for resonance. The results speak for themselves. This is a great-sounding instrument, even to a committed traditionalist who’s never sure why anyone would even try and improve on circa 1920s designs.
But it is not a loud instrument. The first time I played the ukulele was at an acoustic gig at a busy restaurant and the volume of conversations and clinking glasses simply swallowed up the sound of the instrument. Usually I can dig in and get the volume I need from a uke, but that didn’t really work. I would figure out a pickup or a mic before I tried it again. A few days later, I brought the ukulele to a jam session with a dozen or so folks playing folk and American songbook tunes. And again, the sweet subtle tone of the ukulele was mostly lost on the crowd. But when the Kanile`a was heard over the bluegrass-tinged din of a Journey hit, it just sounded lovely.
Kanile`a uses bridge pins instead of the more common tie-block found on most ukuleles. They cite better tone, reduced problems from pressure on the bridge and soundboard, and easier string changes. I’ve had enough problems with bridges on vintage ukuleles to know that they may be onto something. I did wonder about the plastic pins on an otherwise all-wood instrument, but a quick look at Google left me satisfied that ebony or bone replacement pins would be a simple and affordable upgrade.
Kanile`a is doing everything right with the Oha-T. I love that the instrument is built on Oahu and the family-owned company restores and replants native Hawaiian rain forest and sources all their woods responsibly. But I knew I was absolutely sure when I had to go back and edit the word “sweet” out of this review a dozen times, because sweet is really the best way to describe this ukulele.
KANILE`A OHA-T TENOR
BODY Solid koa top on solid mahogany back and sides; modified TRU-R bracing; UV natural finish
NECK Mahogany neck with 19-fret walnut fingerboard; 1.48″-wide nut; black-stained poplar position markers and logo; chrome open-gear tuners with black buttons
OTHER Walnut bridge with plastic bridge pins; Graph Tech NuBone saddle and nut; padded canvas case; also available in concert ($750 direct) and wide-body super tenor ($850 direct)
MADE IN U.S.A.
PRICE $795 (direct)