By Sandor Nagyszalanczy
Uke Tales is an exploration of ukuleles with an interesting story, connection, or just a lovely instrument.
I think everybody has a story that they simply love to tell. They love it so much, in fact, that they end up telling it a little (or a lot) too often. You know the ones, that make spouses and friends roll their eyes and give a look that says something like, ”Is Uncle Clem really gonna tell that exact same story AGAIN?!!” It seems we all end up doing it sooner or later.
I admit that I have a story like that too and, not surprisingly considering the name of this blog, it’s about a ukulele. I’ll apologize ahead of time if you’ve heard it already (at least I won’t be able to see your eyes rolling as you read it here again).
About 30 years ago, I was getting ready to take my very first trip to Hawaii. Even though I’d been playing and collecting ukuleles for quite a few years, I’d never gotten around to visiting the islands. My mother was particularly excited about that trip, as she’d reached the point of her life when long distance travel was just too uncomfortable. Hence, she enjoyed travel vicariously through others. Before I left for the airport, she pulled me aside and handed me an envelop with a few hundred dollars in it. When I asked what the money was for, she said “It’s so that you can buy a ukulele.” I reminded her that I already owned quite a few ukes that had been made in the islands, most of them in the early part of the last century. But she insisted: “This is your first trip to Hawaii, and I want you to have a nice memento of your visit.” My mom was always very thoughtful and generous. What could I do but thank her and promise to spend the money wisely?
The next day, my Aloha Airlines flight glided high over the wide Pacific and deposited me in Honolulu. (At the time, the fact that the ukulele was born from Portuguese instruments that had also first landed in Honolulu was unknown to me.) After downing my share of Mai Tais and marveling at all the Asian tourists, I did a quick spin around Oahu, stopping at the North Shore to leap off the big rock at Waimea Bay. After a few days, I flew over to Hilo on the east coast of the Big Island. I’d rented a wonderful little cottage down in the Puna district, just south of Pahoa for the even-in-those-days remarkably affordable rate of $185 a week. (Sadly, this entire area was covered in lava during last year’s volcanic eruptions of Kilauea.)
After many happy hours of snorkeling and local sight seeing, I decided to take a little rental car trip up the coast. After playing a little pretend bass on a giant tropical frond in the jungle near Hilo, I slowly made my way up Hwy 19 along the coast, past Hakalau Bay and Laupahoehoe Beach Park and Kaohaoha Gulch, taking in one breathtaking vista after another. Although that side of the island is often rainy, I was blessed with incredibly clean and sunny weather for most of my visit.
Somewhere around Waimea (the northern Big Island city, not the bay), I happened upon a small music store just off the highway. Upon seeing the dozen or so vintage ukes in the front window, I knew I was in the right place. That feeling was confirmed upon meeting the store’s owner, a most pleasant fellow whose name escapes me at the moment. Turns out that not only were both of us serious ukulele collectors, our paths had actually crossed a decade earlier when I was living in New England—I almost bought a Knutsen uke from him, and I’ve regretted not buying it ever since.
After getting an insider’s tour of his shop and a peek at his impressive instrument collection, I remembered my mother’s ukulele-buying mission. I told him how much money I had to spend, and he almost instantly pointed to several soprano ukes hanging on the wall behind the counter. “Those are KoAloha ukes made in Honolulu; they’re plain, but really nice sounding.”
There were three koa wood KoAlohas right next to each other, each the exact same model and price. I picked up and strummed the first one and it sounded pretty nice; bright and bouncy, just like a soprano koa uke is supposed to sound. It was nicely made and I really liked the way the neck was sculpted where it joined the body. I then grabbed the next one over and was a bit shocked; here was a supposedly identical instrument made in the same shop as the one I’d just played, yet it sounded kind of dull and a even little muddy. I put it back quick and took down the last little soprano. It was like a completely different instrument; each chord I strummed rang out with a shiny, yet warm sound that was full of rich harmonic content. It made me smile. After comparing it head-to-head with the first uke I’d tried, it was no contest: The third ukulele had the best sound, by far. Of course, that’s the one I bought and the same one that’s shown in the photos here. It still sounds great, despite a few small cracks that developed not long after bringing it back to California (the climate’s a bit drier here than in Hawaii). Thanks again, Mom!
So, why do I tell and re-tell this story? I offer it as a lesson to all the people who ask me: “I’m in the market for a new ukulele…which one should I buy?” After telling them my KoAloha story (only the part about trying and buying the uke), I always tell them: “Don’t buy any ukulele until you’ve actually played it, and pick the one that sounds best to you, as even a handful of ‘identical’ ukes can sound quite different from one another.” As I final caveat, I offer this advice: That if you do buy a uke via the internet or mail order, just make sure that the seller allows returns, just in case you don’t like the way the instrument sounds.