In 2006, I went to Honolulu to build a ukulele by hand.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


On the video I got when I first started playing the uke, Jim Beloff opens by performing a song he wrote called "I Don't Want To Say Aloha."

I too don't want to say "aloha."

When I took a songwriting class four years ago at the Gotham Writers' Workshop in New York City, my teacher talked of a something she called "song high." It's that feeling you have when you've just written a new song and you think, "That's the best song anyone has ever written." When you get that feeling, she says, it's time to put the song aside for a few weeks and come back to it, maybe with a little better perspective. The feeling usually goes away. Well, right now I'm feeling a kind of song high for the whole experience I've just been through, and I really hope it doesn't go away.

It almost seems a shame that I'm leaving now because there is a large annual ukulele festival here this coming Sunday for which people come from all over. The festival is loaded with star performers. But I can't stay forever, and I can leave knowing I've already seen some of the world's finest uke players these last few weeks: Benny Chong, Herb Ohta Jr., David Kamakahi, Jake Shimabukuro and, of course my classmate Taimane Gardner. Today I stopped off at the Ukulele Pua Pua store at the Pacific Beach Hotel to buy a few CDs by each of these great ukers before I go.

On my way back to my room, I stopped at the U.S. Army Museum, which is only a five minute walk away, but I've not been there until now because--between the shop, lessons and performances--I've had so little time to sitesee. I will, in fact, be leaving Honolulu without having visited Pearl Harbor or the Arizona Memorial. A shame, I know, but it does give me an excuse to return soon. Not that I need an excuse.

Finally, as I end this blog, I need to thank a few people. If you have been following my adventures all along, bear with me for a few more paragraphs, as there are several people and organizations without whom this never would have happened:

First of all, thanks to The Fund For Teachers for providing me with the grant that made this trip possible, and to New Visions through whom the grant was made available.

Thanks to everyone at the High School for Public Service, a great group of people to work with who have been full of encouragement. Special thanks to Marisa Boan, my school administrator, who first told me about the Fund For Teachers grants when she learned I was applying for a fellowship to Japan in the fall. It was also Marisa who--when I was having trouble thinking of what to write my grant proposal for--told me to "shoot for the moon." I did and it's been a wonderful ride.

Thanks to Mike and Asa Chock of the Hana Lima 'Ia ukulele building school. They the nicest of people and are the reason the uke-building class felt like "ohana." Mike is a true craftsman, and his guidance throughout the process of building my uke was teaching of the highest order.

My music theory instructor while I've been here, Byron Yasui, is one of a kind. A great uke player, a patient teacher, and always smiling. It will be many months--maybe years--before I will be able to master all that Byron has shown me in just a few short sessions.

Thanks too, to the members of the uke community--many of whom have been jealously following this blog--who provided me with so much help both as I wrote my grant proposal and after I got here. I hope I've encouraged a few of you to follow me here. Extra special thanks to Geoff Davis and MusicGuyMike.

Thanks to my mom and dad who helped me get into guitar all those years ago, and for putting up with noisy garage band jam sessions in our basement when I was a kid.

Most of all, thanks to my perfect wife, Allison, who supports me in every hair-brained scheme I dream up. She's too good to me.

And to you, my readers, thank you for your supportive comments and for indulging me these last two-and-a-half weeks. Don't forget to check back here in October when I will be blogging from Japan.


[view today's photos]

Monday, July 24, 2006

One Day Left

I didn't put a coat of finish on my uke this morning because I didn't want the glop to still be sticking to my hands when I went for my last lesson with Byron today.

For my previous two lessons, Byron picked me up from Mike's shop, but I'm not at the shop anymore, so I'm much closer to Byron's office at the university. It is only a short bus ride from where I'm staying, but after getting scolded for playing uke on the bus yesterday, I decided to walk. It's taken me two weeks but--a day before I leave--I'm finally learning my way around Honolulu. Like lower Manhattan, few of the streets here run straight for any distance, and the ones that do change names several times. Asking a local for help can be frustrating because the cardinal directions are meaningless here. No one knows which way is north, south, east or west. Instead, people know their way around the island by these designations: mauka ("toward the mountains," or toward the center of the island), makai ("toward the ocean"), Diamond Head ("toward the big mountain thataway"), and ewa ("away from the big mountain thatotherway"). In other words: out, in , clockwise and counterclockwise.

It was only a 30-minute walk in a mauka-ish direction to Byron's office, but I gave myself an hour to get there just in case I got lost. Of course because I planned for it, I didn't get lost and so was a half-hour early for my lesson. I used the half-hour to practice and it was the most time I've spent just playing my uke since I've been here. It's funny that for a uke-themed trip, there has hardly been any time for me to sit down and play. But I suppose there will be plenty of time for me to play when I get home, so I don't feel bad that I've been busy watching others play while building my own.

I've always been sort of secretly proud of the fact that I'm pretty much self-taught at guitar and completely self-taught at ukulele, but studying with Byron has eliminated my pride. While Byron has given me a lot of confidence in what I already know, there is much to learn and I've got no reason to remain ignorant of the rest. I've gotten so much from him that I can't wait to practice and apply what I've learned. When I first contacted Byron months ago about lessons, he told me he charges for 90-minute lessons but said "they often run longer." He wasn't kidding. My lesson today went for nearly three hours. I'm really going to miss studying with Byron when I get home. A music theory instructor who plays uke is none too common, even in New York.

[view today's photos]

Sunday, July 23, 2006


One of the reasons I stayed here in Honolulu for a few days after my uke-building class ended was because my friend Sharon was going to be in town, arriving last night. I met Sharon in the intensive summer training course I took while becoming a teacher through the New York City Teaching Fellows program four years ago. She now teaches in London, but has family here in Hawaii, and it seemed silly for me to leave the day she arrived.

After putting another coat of finish on my uke this morning (only 48 more to go!), I met Sharon and her family at Kapiolani Park, and probably got more sun than I've gotten since I've been here. Sharon thought I looked more tan than the last time we saw each other, but I have a tough time believing that to be true.

I left Sharon and her family to meet Cal at The Hawaiian Ukulele Company for a lesson. On the way, the bus driver scolded me for playing ukulele on the bus. I know music is not allowed on the bus, but I was playing because I was asked to by the guy next to me and figured uke music might be an exception to the no-music rule. I guess not.

Anyway, Cal taught me some uke techniques, while customers strolled in and out of his shop. Cal, too, took Mike's uke-building course a few years ago, but plays his vintage Kamaka instead of the one he made. I take that as a pretty good endorsement for Kamaka, but I'll be happy with my own for a while.

While I was sitting and practicing at Cal's shop, another uker named Mike walked in and--get this--recognized me from my pictures on this blog. I'm like a uke celebrity! I, in turn, recognized him from when I saw his booth at the New York Uke Fest a few months back. As it turns out, he's also a frequent contributor to the Flea Market bulletin board and I know him online as MusicGuyMic. In fact, Mike has been responding to my posts on the bulletin board all along, from when I was asking about Hana Lima 'Ia to when I found out I got the grant and wondered what to do when I got here.

Mike was in the neighborhood for the same reason I was, namely that Jake Shimabukuro was playing tonight at Gordon Biersch, which is literally a ten-second walk from Cal's shop and right across the way from Don Ho's Island Grill at the Aloha Tower Marketplace. When I finished my lesson with Cal, I was standing around the overcrowded Gordon Biersch music "lanai" (Hawaiian for "porch") looking lonely until MusicGuyMike found me and invited me to his table. Not only did Mike make me feel at home and introduce me to his friends, he also insisted on buying me dinner, which was too nice, especially considering the fact my trip is being paid for by my grant.

So, for the first time, I got to see Jake play, both solo and along with the Opihi Pickers, whose own uke player, Imua Garza is no slouch himself. It would be safe to say that Jake is the reigning phenom in the ukulele world these days, and his celebrity brings with it controversy. While some ukers can't get enough of him, others feel that his playing is all style, no substance. I've admired what I've seen of him online, but I've reserved judgement until now that I've seen him in person. I have to say that, while he's still pretty young, he's grown a lot musically from when he started out. Sure, his playing is technically excellent, but I think his playing also shows a huge amount of melodic skill. In my opinion, anyone who thinks Jake is all style has not seen him play in the last few years. Personally, I was impressed on all levels, and so was the packed house at Gordon Biersch. At any rate, I was especially glad I had the chance to see him play because I just missed him in New York, where he played two days after I left to come here.

Now, to put another coat of finish on my uke before I go to bed (only 47 more to go!).

[view today's photos]

Saturday, July 22, 2006

One Down, 49 To Go

Last night I went to the Tropics Bar and Beach Cafe at the Hilton Hawaiian Village to see a performance by Herb Ohta, Jr. and David Kamakahi. Both of them are accomplished ukulele players, and both have excellent Hawaiian music pedigrees. David's father, Dennis Kamakahi, is renowned on the slack-key guitar, a uniquely Hawaiian guitar-playing style. Herb's father, Herb Sr., is better known as Ohta San, and is nothing short of a ukulele legend.

When I was talking to Cal at The Hawaiian Ukulele Company the other day, he said that what he thinks makes these guys so great is that if you watch them play, you say "I could do that." He was right. When I watched them play, I didn't feel like they did anything that I couldn't do, but the truth is that I'll never be able to do what they do. It's only that they do it so well that they make it look easy.

Few of the people at the beachside bar knew who was playing. Most of them had just crawled out of the ocean for pina coladas and mai tais, and I was able to get the table nearest to the stage even having shown up nearly an hour into the three-hour set. Both Herb and David were generous enough to talk to me and let me take pictures with them. Kazuo from my class saw them play at the same bar on Wednesday and was blown away by the fact that he was able to sit so close and talk to these guys. I mentioned before that the ukulele is wildly popular in Japan, and Kazuo says that in Japan you can't be in the same room with Herb Ohta, Jr. for less than $60 (or whatever the equivalent is in yen). I can't decide if that makes me wish I were Japanese or makes me glad I'm not, but it certainly makes me even more excited for my trip to Japan in October.

After they finished their set, I walked down Kalakaua Avenue to see my virtuoso classmate, Taimane, play in front of the Pacific Beach Hotel, where she plays every Friday at 9:00 pm. There are lots of buskers on Kalakaua, Honolulu's main drag, mostly of the guy-painted-silver-who-moves-like-a-robot-if-you-put-money-in-his-bucket type. Most had a handful of onlookers, but the crowd surrounding Tai essentially blocked pedestrian traffic for a city block. Although I saw a snippet of her repertoire at the Don Ho show last week--and she's played tidbits here and there during our uke-building class this week--this was the first time I was able to see her play her heart out. She really shreds. She played my uke yesterday after I put the strings on and I was afraid she'd demolish it before I got it into the case I bought for it, but she went easy on it. Good thing, because I'm not sure I built it well enough to withstand the intensity of her playing.

One more thing: I said yesterday that I was finished with my uke. I lied. True, I finished building it, but it isn't done yet. Remember that I put a coat of Tru-Oil on it? Mike says I need to put 10 coats on before I sand it again. After that, I need to put a few more coats on, sanding between each coat. How many more? Only about forty. Since each coat needs to dry thoroughly before the next is applied, it will take me at least a month before I'm really done.

But at least I can play it between coats.

[view today's photos]

Friday, July 21, 2006


My uke-building class ended today in much the same way that it began: No lunch.

Also--as with the first day--I was late. When I arrived everyone had already drilled holes in the bridge for the last two strings and had applied to their ukes a coat of Tru-Oil, a finish formulated for gunstocks. Funny, because if the ukulele has an opposite, it is the gun.

After I caught up, it was time to put the strings on and test the nut, bridge and frets for any funny business. The nut I made yesterday was too low, so I had to make a new one, but if there’s one place on this instrument that you can make a mistake, it’s the nut, which isn’t attached to the uke but is simply held in place by the strings. Mike says he once had a student who had to remake his nut seven times, but my second one did the trick. Then I sanded down the saddle, which fits into the bridge, and filed down my frets just a hair. And that was it.

My uke is done.

I was prepared to write about how it might not sound just the way it should, but how it sounds good to me anyway. I figured I would tell you all the little flaws only serve to give it character, but I don’t have to. Truth is, the little sucker is a beauty and sounds better than I ever expected. The tone is as warm as the waters of Waikiki and when I pluck the strings the notes seem to ring forever. I came to Hawaii thinking that, in addition to building a uke, I might buy myself a nice one too--maybe a vintage Kamaka or a new KoAloha--but when I put the strings on mine today I forgot all about buying a new one. I only want to play mine. What’s better is that every instrument needs time to break in, and in the coming weeks, months and years my uke will only sound better and better.

When I talked to Benny Chong during a break in his performance last night, he told me he took Mike’s class a few years ago, but had to leave town for a gig before the last class and never finished his uke. Benny, if you’re reading this: Finish it. You’ll be glad you did.

A little more ukulele information: Ukes come in four sizes--(from smallest to largest) soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Mine is a tenor and so it has a bassier tone than a lot of ukes, made even bassier by the fact that I put a low-G string on it, which is a common practice but not the standard. What does it mean to have a low-G? If you’ve ever heard the phrase “my dog has fleas” sung, the notes are the same as the four strings of a typical ukulele strummed from top to bottom, G-C-E-A. Unlike a guitar, where each string is a higher note than the last, the G on a typical ukulele is higher than the C and E notes. The tuning on my uke differs in that the G string is lowered an octave so that it is lower than the other strings. A lot of ukers will take issue with this tuning--and I myself tend to prefer the high-G--but after playing some of the ukes in the shop that were built to the same size and shape as mine, I decided I liked the way the low-G sounds on these particular ukes. And, after all, I’m the one who has to play it, right?

So class is over. Albert had a flight to catch and left early, saying not “goodbye” but “see you later.” Isn’t that always what happens when something like this ends, be it summer camp, karate class, or whatnot? You say “see you later” but you know that in all likelihood you won’t. The rest of us lingered for a while, tinkering with our new creations a little longer than necessary and admiring each other’s handiwork before saying the euphemistic “see you later” too.

In this case, though, Albert is probably right: We may not start to call each other for daily chats, but Taimane will surely play in New York sometime soon; I will have a chance to visit Kazuo when I’m in Japan this October; Peter, Phil and Albert will circulate around the same few uke conventions that I will.

Though I'll be in Honolulu for a few more days, everyone else leaves tomorrow. And though I won't be seeing them every day anymore, I will see them again, and when I do I'll remember that for these two weeks, we have been “ohana”--family.

[view today's photos]

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Brush With Greatness

Every time we get through a difficult phase of construction, Mike says we're "home free." With only one day of class to go, there aren't many more chances for us to make mistakes. But then Mike tells the story of a former student who--on the last day of class--accidentally knocked his uke off the workbench and it popped like a balloon. The only thing he had left to do was to put strings on it. Ouch.

Today, in addition to a lot more sanding, I fit the nut between the head and the fretboard (not the "fletboard") and glued the bridge to the body. Mike estimates that the tension of the strings on the bridge amounts to about 53 pounds, so a few dabs of glue seems insufficient, but that's how you do it. Not that every part isn't important, but if the bridge is off by a 16th of an inch, the strings won't sound the right notes as you move up the fretboard, so I was extra careful with this. The old carpenters rule is "measure twice, cut once," so I figured measuring eight or nine times is even better. That's the obsessive-compulsive in me, and it takes a lot of time, but at least I'm sure, right? Tomorrow, I finish construction and string it up. Lately I've been having this vision of plucking the first note on my newly built uke, and hearing a dull thud. Not so much a vision as a nightmare really.

I guess you know by now this has not really been a beach-related trip for me, but after class I went for a swim at Waikiki beach for the first time. Played my Fluke uke there too and I think the saltwater air is rusting my tuning pegs, so I don't plan on taking the one I'm building for a swim.

Tonight I saw my music teacher, Byron Yasui, play his regular Thursday gig at the Pacific Beach Hotel with ukulele jazz great Benny Chong. Benny is famous for his unusual chords that span seven or eight frets. Not the little frets at the high end the fretboard either. The big frets. Benny was in Don Ho's band during the show on Sunday, but this was my first chance to see him playing real jazz, and it was downright impressive. He let me hold his uke and that is, I'm sure, as close as I will ever be to playing like him.

Peter from my class was there too, and was wearing the same uke-themed shirt as Byron. Even the clothing selection in the ukulele world is small. I wasn't surprised to see him there because he had told me earlier he was going to see "Byron and Benny" tonight. He didn't need to tell me which Byron or Benny. As with all the personalities in the uke community, one name is sufficient for everyone to know who you're talking about. No one knows Taimane's last name, and if you tell a uke player that Jake is playing tonight, they'll know who you mean. It's not like we're talking about mega-celebrities like Cher and Madonna. It's more like the ukulele community is one big family, so last names are an unnecessary formality.

After the show, I visited the uke shop at the same hotel and saw something I've never seen before, a phono ukulele, which is essentially a disembodied uke with a phonograph-type horn attached. Interesting to look at, but it sounded like a rock hitting a garbage can--funny enough, just the way I fear my uke will sound tomorrow.

[view today's photos]

Poi Boy

I’ve been writing much of this blog in my hotel lobby, listening to the Hawaiian music they have piped in. One of the reasons I’m here is to listen to Hawaiian music, and normally I enjoy it, but the hotel has only one CD on constant repeat. It’s the same album all day, every day. The lyrics to the songs are in Hawaiian, and despite the fact that I don’t understand a word of them, I think I could probably karaoke the whole album at this point. One song in particular is quite the earworm, and I wake up singing it to myself every morning. I feel sorry for the folks who work the front desk.

At Mike’s shop, the radio is always set to KINE 105, as is practically every radio in the city. KINE is all Hawaiian music too, but thankfully they have more than one album.

Now just because I’ve barely been to the beach since I’ve been here doesn’t mean I haven’t seen my share of sand. It’s just that the sand I see is glued to paper and wrapped around sanding blocks. After hammering in the last two frets, sanding is about all I did today. It’s slow work and, to make matters worse, when I measured the thickness of my uke’s neck and compared it to the ones I measured at the store last night, I decided mine was too thick. So I pulled out the Microplane again and zested my neck down some more, in effect undoing an hour’s worth of sanding that I did yesterday, which meant I had to re-sand it. By the end of the day I had a nice little pile of wood shavings at my feet (and all over my clothes), so it was kind of like being on Waikiki Beach, without the bikinis.

Before heading home, I drilled the tuner holes in my headstock, which gives me a chance to teach you my favorite Hawaiian word: puka. Pronouced “pooka,” it means “hole,” and Mike uses it a lot--“You take the drill and put one little puka here, and another little puka over here.” I’m definitely bringing that one back to New York.

Tonight I went to a luau where we ate kalua pork, which is not cooked in coffee-flavored liquor, but in a hole that’s dug into the beach, filled with heated lava rocks, covered and left to roast all day. Good stuff. I also ate poi for the first time. Poi is the root of the taro plant mashed into a paste-like substance. A lot of people will tell you that poi is a flavorless muck, but I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. It actually has a subtly disgusting taste. The luau entertainment was pretty cheesey, but I can’t say it was without charm. It’s the kind of thing you do once and never have to do again, like nude bungee jumping (or so I’ve heard). There was hula and drumming and fire twirling and just about everything you might expect, but guess what they didn’t have. Yeah, you guessed it. How can you call yourself a luau without ukuleles?

Q: If the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition hadn’t had any ukuleles, what would I be doing today?
A: Crying.

Oh, and that hotel-lobby earworm song I mentioned: The luau band played it too, so now I'll be going to bed with it stuck in my head.

[view today's photos]

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

A Brief History of Uke

Since a good portion of Don Ho's show on Sunday night was dedicated to advertising for his restaurant at Aloha Tower, I decided to get a drink there before dinner last night, which was a few steps away from Don's at Chai's, a popular dining plus music venue. There I saw Jerry Santos play some beautiful Hawaiian music while I ate mahi mahi. Unfortunately, his frequent guest Bryan Tolentino didn't play with him last night, so the performance was ukulele-free.

Today in class I made the soundhole for my uke, shaped the end of the fretboard, attached it, and designed and cut my headstock. The headstock is one of the few places on the instrument where those of us in the class have a little freedom to do what we want. I made about 20 sketches in my notebook, but--as is always the case with this kind of thing--I ended up going with the first one...well, not quite. When I showed Mike my first headstock template, he explained that I needed to taper it where the headstock meets the fretboard, instead of flaring it out, as I had intended. The way he put it was this: "If your headstock flares out like that, how are you going to play G7?" This is why Mike makes the big bucks. When you play a G7 chord your hand is butted up against the head, and you need a little room to get your hand in there. If you look at today's photos, I've included a drawing of what I originally intended and a picture of what my headstock ended up looking like. Notice the difference? It's a good example of how what looks good on paper isn't always great in practice.

There was also an endless amount of sanding and filing today as I shaped the back of the neck. Much of this work was done with the same Microplane zester I have at home. I use mine on food. Mike uses them on wood. Remind me not to eat at Mike's house.

After class Phil and I visited a few pawn shops around town, looking to see if there might be some uke treasures hidden away. There were indeed a few nice ukes at the shops we stopped at, but unfortunately the shop owners seemed to know what they were worth.

On my way to dinner at Kobe Steak House, I went through the Hilton Hawaiian Village--which might better be called the Hilton Tiki Megacomplex--just to see what was there. Not far from a statue of Alfred Apaka, sure enough there was a uke shop. I think building a uke has made me into a very annoying uke shop customer. I literally had the shopkeeper loan me a ruler so I could check the specs on the ukes I played. Truth is, the main reason I did this is because I am really starting to notice what feels good to play and what doesn't, and I want to take what I've learned about my own likes and dislikes back to Mike's shop tomorrow so I can make sure the uke I'm building is one I'm comfortable playing.

While I was plunking on an 8-string Kamaka, a woman came into the store and began to ask the shopkeeper and me about ukuleles. One of her questions was this: "How do you pronounce the name of that instrument?"

It's a good question, and it depends, I suppose, on where you are. Mainlanders call them "yookuleles," but Hawaiians--who are probably more knowledgeable than mainlanders in pronouncing Hawaiian words--call them "ookuleles." You may have noticed that the word "Hawaii" is sometimes (more acurately) spelled with what looks like a backward apostrophe: Hawai'i. That backward apostrophe represents a sound we don't really have in English, a glottal stop. I guess when your alphabet only has 12 letters, you've gotta add something. The point is that 'ukulele properly spelled (and pronounced) has a glottal stop at the front. The word means "jumping flea" in Hawaiian, and although there are a number of theories on the subject, no one really knows why, which is surprising when you learn how recently ukes (or 'ukes) came into existence.

In 1879, just four years before the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge, a ship arrived in Honolulu carrying Portuguese immigrants. They had with them an instrument from home called a braguinha. The Hawaiians took a liking to the little thing and before long three of the Portuguese immigrants were making ukuleles full time.

The uke caught on in the mainland in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a sort of World's Fair intended to celebrate the completion of the Panama canal. As were the Hawaiians with the braguniha, so were mainlanders enamored of the ukulele, and the golden era of the uke was born, lasting through the '20s. Since then, it seems about right to say that the uke has gone though alternate waves of popularity and scorn, in approximately 20-year cycles, but I don't have any diagrams to prove it.

At any rate, I'm happy to say right now the uke is in a boom cycle.

[view today's photos]

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Builders

Mike jokingly said the other day that a lot of the people who come to him to build ukes are there because they can't play the uke. While I know I'm no Jake Shimabukuro (do yourself a favor and check out that link), I like to think I'm not incapable of carrying a tune, but it is true that we are not exactly a group of ukulele virtuosos. There are six of us. You already know me. Here are the other five (pictures of each of them in today's photos):

I've mentioned Phil before. He lives in Torrance, California, and he and his wife have been to Hawaii 28 times over the course of their 33-year marriage. I'm impressed by both of these numbers. Since my first day of class, Phil has become sort of my tour guide here in Honolulu. He knows what's on the beaten path and what's off of it here and I've gotten a lot of great tips from him about what to do. Phil claims his ukulele repertoire is fairly limited, but his wife says he is capable of mangling any song ever written.

Peter is retired military and now lives in Texas. He's served in Korea and Vietnam, and I think he has an endless supply of ukulele-themed t-shirts, which makes me jealous. Oddly enough, Peter was born in Brooklyn and graduated from Erasmus Hall, the first school I taught at. He also looks a lot like Ernest Hemingway, and if that isn't cool I need to have my cool-o-meter recalibrated.

Kazuo is here from Japan to build with Mike. Kazuo is an amateur cabinet maker and has built a few ukes before, so he is handier with the tools than most of us. Whenever I lose track of what I'm doing, I always look over at Kazuo's work. (Is that cheating?) The fact that there are many Japanese people in Hawaii--both living here and visiting--makes it unsurprising that there is someone all the way from Japan in the class, but it is even less surprising if you know how popular the ukulele is in Japan. I wish I could explain why this is. There are plenty of possible explanations, but no one seems to know exactly. I think it's because those tiny Tokyo apartments make the contrabass impractical. Kazuo is also a pretty good player, especially considering he's only been playing for a year and a half. I'll be in Japan this fall for a three week fellowship (check back to this blog in October!) , so I hope to see Kazuo when I'm there.

Albert was born in Hawaii but now lives in Gardena, California, "where the poor people live." He's 81 years old and has been retired for 20 years. Combining that with the fact that he used to work for the L.A. Department of Water & Power pretty much makes me think that the movie Chintown is based loosely on his life.

Now, I said that we are not exactly a bunch of ukulele virtuosos, but there is one exception in the class: Taimane, a 17-year-old high school senior-to-be. Like I said, I'm no Jake Shimabukuro (click that link too), but Tiamane has studied with Jake and with Jake's brother Bruce, who's no slouch himself (I tried to catch Bruce at his regular Saturday night gig this weekend, but it turns out he's in Japan this week). Chalk it up to coincidence again, or maybe it's another it's-a-small-world-when-it-comes-to-the-ukulele thing, but when the guy I rented my apartment from found out I was coming to build a ukulele, he told me I should definitely check out a girl who plays in front of the Pacific Beach Hotel every Friday night. I'd never heard of her, but it was Taimane he was talking about. She's building a uke as part of her senior project for graduation. Phil and Peter recognized her the second she walked in, and Kazuo has even seen her in Japan, so she's the real deal, and I'm apparently just ignorant. She's even on the cover of this issue of Oahu's Midweek, for crying out loud. I had hoped to catch her playing last Friday, but the rain kept me away.

Even though I missed seeing Taimane play, I had so much fun this weekend that I was starting to think the only thing that could make this trip any better is if I could have seen Don Ho when he was still alive. Trick question:

Q: How long has Don Ho been dead?
A: He's not!

True, he had to go to Thailand late last year for a lifesaving procedure, but the man is still putting on a show at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel (three times a week!). And, after a drive around the island yesterday, I went to see the Ho Show last night. Honestly, I just wanted to say I had seen Don Ho, and didn't expect much (I mean, even Don himself made a few references to his own mortality during the show), but I ended up really enjoying myself. Not only is Don a charismatic (if not lively) showman, the talented young artists who perform during the show to give Don a break were all excellent. One of them in particular stole the show. Guess who it was: Taimane. I'd been dying to hear her for a week, and now that I got the chance, I was beyond impressed. She was like Eddie Van Halen only cooler (because Eddie doesn't play uke).

Even better was that Don's band last night included Benny Chong, widely regarded as the world's best jazz ukulele player. He plays with my music theory teacher, Byron Yasui, every Thursday and Friday (also at the Pacific Beach Hotel), so I'm planning to see him do his thing later this week, but he performed a solo last night that really made me look forward to seeing him as the star of his own show on Thursday.

Today I glued the kerfing to the inside of my uke and glued the back on. I haven't cut the sound hole yet, so the label I attached to the back of the uke is sitting right now in a perfectly dark wooden box. I can't wait for tomorrow to make the soundhole and let my label see the light of day again.

[view today's photos]

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Come to Papa

Today was my day to finally see a little of Honolulu culture. My first stop was Iolani Palace, the only royal residence on American soil and the official residence of the last two monarchs of Hawaii, King Kalakaua and Queen Liliuokalani. As a uke player, I take interest in the fact that they were both accomplished musicians. Kalakaua wrote the Hawaiian anthem--“Hawaii Ponoi”--And Liliuokalani wrote one you might have heard of: “Aloha Oe.” The highlight of the tour for me was the fact that Iolani Palace has a huge staircase made of koa wood, and I couldn’t help looking at it and thinking, “I could make a lot of ukuleles out of that.”

From the palace, I headed to the Foster Botanic Garden, which was nice, but there were no ukulele trees. On the way there though, I made an unscheduled stop at Hawaii State Art Museum, which I happened to walk by. It's the kind of museum I like. Nice stuff, but not so much of it that you get sick of looking at nice stuff. The weird thing is that the very first piece I looked at was a ceramic sculpture made by Vicky Chock. She just happens to be the only Hawaiian artist whose name I know, and I’ve only known her name for two days because it was two days ago that Mike Chock--the guy who’s teaching me to build a ukulele--told me about his wife, Vicky. Funny coincidence. And a nice surprise because the piece was wonderful.

After a stroll through the botanic garden, I made my way to the shopping center at Aloha Tower because I had heard there was a uke store there worth checking out. When I found The Hawaiian Ukulele Company, Cal showed me his ukes and played a few songs for me on his 8-string vintage Kamaka tenor ukulele before I bought a few books of music. And then another coincidence: As I was telling Cal how much I liked playing KoAloha ukes the other day, none other than Papa KoAloha himself walks in with a delivery of ukes. I took the opportunity to get a picture with him and to tell him how much I liked playing his Pinapple Sunday uke at the KoAloha factory.

And now I can’t complain that I haven’t been in the water yet, because I finished the day with an ocean swim.

[view today's photos]

Bend it Like Murray

Friday was an exciting day in the shop. After sanding so that the front of the body was flush with the neck, I bent the two side pieces. If you had asked me a week ago how long I thought it would take to bend a piece of wood that way, I think I would have guessed a day or two, but it takes a little less time than that. More like one minute. Less if you know what you’re doing. When I watched Ben do it the other day at the KoAloha shop, it took him about 20 seconds. After that, I glued my koa veneer to the headstock. Koa is a native Hawaiian wood and is essentially the preferred wood for uke making, but it’s rare and very expensive. My uke is made of Honduran mahogany, so it’s nice to have this little bit of koa on my instrument.

After hammering the frets into the fretboard, I finished the day by gluing the bent sides of the uke to the already assembled front and neck. It was a tough process, but it is so amazing to see the various parts of the ukulele coming together and fitting so perfectly to each other. Mike obviously knows what he’s doing, because it can’t possibly be to my credit that everything is so exact.

Best of all, Mike even gave us time for lunch today. So my involuntary hunger strike is over. Of course that meant that I was busy in the shop until 4:00, whereas we’re usually done by about 2:00. I just didn’t want to break for the weekend before gluing my sides on.

After class, Phil, Kazuo and I went to Chinatown, which would be a lot more interesting if it weren’t for the fact that it isn’t nearly as cool as the one back home in New York, or if I hadn’t just spent a week and a half in China in April. All the lei makers are here however, and I bought a nice one. I’ve been so busy this week that I haven’t eaten out or seen any sites, but the arrival of the weekend gave me the chance to finish the day by seeing Chinatown and later going out for the first nice meal I’ve had since I’ve been here. I should however point out that, though I’m only a five minute walk from the beach, I still haven’t set foot in the ocean.

[view today's photos]

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hunger Strike

I always tell people that my stage name is Skip Lunch. Considering the fact that I don't actually perform on stage, it's a joke. But if I don't start eating my midday meal, it's not going to be a joke much longer.

Truth is, class was much slower again today. Fitting the soundboard to the neck was a slow and frustrating experience, sanding micrometers of wood here and there for eternity. Other than that, the main task of the day was to turn a rectangle of wood into a fretboard. I don't know how they did this in the days before table saws, but kudos to those poor folks. That sensation that Mike talked about--of getting worried about making a mistake--is growing. Now that all these pieces of wood are starting to look like a ukulele, I'm terrified of screwing anything up. When I'm teaching, kids always make mistakes, but sometimes they make tiny little errors and ask for a whole new paper or start over completely, and I get so annoyed that they are wasting all the progress they've made so far, but now I understand. I mean, I'm a perfectionist anyway, but I have this notion in the back of my head that if something goes wrong, I can just start over. Mike is not that kind of teacher though. If you make a mistake, he's all about doing something to fix it--find the patch. There's no "do overs" with him. More like "undo overs." It hasn't happened to me yet, but I know it will. In class today, Phil--who is a perfectionist like me--made a mistake on his fretboard. I could tell he was disappointed, but we all know that Mike will make things work out, so Phil's frustration soon subsided. We all make mistakes. I just wonder when I'm going to make mine.

I knew that Byron was going to pick me up from the shop again for a lesson today, so I didn't feel like I had time for lunch. With Mike away at lunch, doing any work was scary. There was no one to fix my mistakes, so everything I did was hesitant. By the time Byron picked me up, I couldn't work any more and was playing on Mike's and Asa's instruments--really wonderful ukes.

Byron is too kind, and we stopped at Zippy's for a bit to eat on the way to his office, where we covered a lot more music theory. By the end of the lesson, Byron said that the only way to go further into theory is to start looking at the way sonatas and concertos are put together. We both agreed that that was not exactly my thing. I'm really more of a fugue guy. For the next week or so, I'll be practicing what he tought me and then I'll go back for a lesson before I go home. We'll see where I am then.

All of the sudden, it seems like I've come a long way since I started playing guitar when I was 14, when I took group lessons once a week for a total of 32 weeks. Until I met Byron on Tuesday, those lessons were the sum total of my musical education. I know why I didn't get started earlier. In fifth grade, we were given a choice between band class or study hall. I'll be honest: I'm lazy, so I chose study hall. I was in fifth grade for Pete's sake--I knew I wouldn't be studying. Why would I have refused the chance for free time? But, come junior high, when I started on guitar, I knew I had found something cool. Soon I was in a band with my buddies named Uranium 235 (cool, eh?). But as Bryan Adams would say, "nothin' can last forever," and Uranium 235 underwent radioactive decay. So I stagnated on guitar by myself for the next decade or so.

Many years later, I was out with my wife, Allison, and my friend Carolyn, and the two of them got to talking about taking hula lessons. In New York, if you wanted to take sasquatch wrestling lessons, you could probably find a class somewhere, so this wasn't the craziest idea I've ever heard. I actually thought it was a cool idea so I made a challenge: I told them if they took a hula class, I would learn to play the ukulele. But they didn't.

So I forgot about it.

Months later, Christmas rolled around and Allison handed me a present. It was a Fluke. It would be safe to say this was a turning point in my life, and the particular uke that she gave me was key. It would have been relatively easy for her to have found some toy ukulele, and I might likely have tossed the thing in the corner and said, "That's cute." But she did her research and found the Fluke, which hasn't been around for long but has rapidly become the entry-level ukulele for people who actually want to play ukulele. Not a toy by any means. It turns out that--completely unbeknownst to me at the time--the ukulele has been in a sort of renaissance in the last few years, and a lot of people were getting started with Flukes. I don't know how she did it, but at that point Allison knew more about ukuleles than I did. Then again, I knew nothing.

When Allison ordered the Fluke from Elderly Instruments, she also got me a video, but it was a bit above my skill level. Okay, way above my skill level, so I sent it back to exchange it for another that was more introductory. A week later the replacement video arrived, but by then I didn't need an introductory video. I played my new uke nonstop for days and was well beyond learning to tune and playing "Skip to My Lou." I guess I should have kept the first video.

A year or so later, I bought a Flea ukulele made by the same company that makes the Fluke. It doesn't sound as good as the Fluke, but the one I bought is awfully pretty, with a pineapple design on the front designed by a uker and artist named Tiki King (not his given name). This was when things got dangerous.

Uke players talk about an affliction dubbed UAS, or Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. I've met plenty of guitar players who have rooms full of guitars, but most guitar players only own one or two. Not so with ukers. Maybe it's because they're so small that owning a bunch doesn't mean building an addition to your home, or maybe it's that you can get a decent instrument for under $200, but it is no joke that serious players end up with uke collections. Not long after I bought my Flea, I eBayed myself a banjo-ukulele hybrid known--appropriately enough--as a banjolele, that was built in the late '20s or early '30s by a company called Sovereign.

But UAS doesn't stop. A few summers later, I was walking along the banks of the river Thames in London (I was taking a summer class there) and saw a trio of buskers, one on sax, one with an upright bass, and one with a uke...or so I thought. then I noticed his uke had 10 strings. After they finished playing, I talked to the uke(?) player and learned about his instrument, which is called a tiple. Obviously I had to have one, so I eBayed, and picked up one that is also late '20s or early '30s vintage. (It's no coincidence that my banjolele and tiple were built at around the same time, but more on that in a future post.) Some ukers consider the tiple to be the bastard cousin of the uke, but I am free from prejudice.

The last instrument I bought may be the oddest. I was simply googling around some uke websites one day and learned about a South American instrument called a charango. Legend has it that when the Spanish colonists arrived, the natives took a liking to their stringed instruments, but lacked the skill to shape the wood properly, so they used what was handy: dead armadillos. Most charangos are made of wood nowadays--and wood is generally considered to be a better medium for sound amplification than dead armadillos are--but I just had to have the dead armadillo kind. So I eBayed one.

Q: How can you beat a dead armadillo?
A: You can't.

[view my uke collection]

[view today's photos]

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Field Trip

Last night I walked all the way across Waikiki to Bob's Ukulele shop at the Marriott Hotel. It was the first time I've ever been to a store that sold nothing but ukuleles. Bob had a nice selection of instruments from the major Hawaiian manufacturers, namely Kamaka, GString, and KoAloha (remember this one--I'll mention it again later), which was my personal favorite--might have to buy one.

Despite the fact that I had two alarms set, I almost overslept today. By the time I got moving, I considered skipping breakfast, but since Mike has forgotten to give us a break for lunch the last two days, I figured I better not. Of course there was a long line at my breakfast place, and of course my bus was late, and of course traffic was heavy, so of course I was late to class today. I was worried about falling behind--even 15 minutes behind--but, as Mike promised, things are slowing down. Whereas the last two days consisted of working on a million things at once, now most of those pieces have been assembled into the front, back and neck of the uke, so there are really only three pieces to work on. The upshot is that Mike gave us a lunch break today.

I had eel.

After class, Kazuo and I caught a ride home with Phil (more on these guys in a future post). Kazuo asked to be dropped off at the KoAloha shop where the Okami family has been making ukes for the last decade. He had made a reservation for a factory tour. Naturally, Phil and I decided to tag along. When we got there Paul Okami met us and gave us a really intimate tour of the "factory." I won't go into detail, because you probably don't care about the specifics, but for us three apprentice ukulele builders it was incredible. I was so excited to see everything. I'm obviously a serious ukulele nerd. The highlight of the tour was when one of the shop's craftsmen, Ben, demonstrated some of their processes for us and even stood on one foot on top of a KoAloha ukulele body to demonstrate how strong they are. I'm not sure I have the guts to stand on the one I'm building. Just the thought of it makes me cry.

After the tour, I played a special uke called the Pineapple Sunday, made by Alvin "Papa KoAloha", the Okami patriarch and company founder. The picture above is of me holding it. I saw one last night at Bob's shop, but dismissed it as a novelty instrument because of all the bells and whistles, but I was mistaken. The Pineapple Sunday was one of the best sounding ukes I've ever touched. Again, I won't bore you with specifics, but some of the construction of this particular uke is really unusual, and when I played it the sound was so rich and complicated I had to stop and check to make sure the thing had only four strings. By sound alone, I would have sworn there were at least six. Too bad it's way out of my price range.

I may have to change my price range.

[view today's photos]

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Six Degrees of Uke

So the reason I'm here is that I got a grant from the Fund for Teachers, which I got hooked up with through New Visions, the organization that helps fund my school. The grant is not only paying for me to learn how to build a uke from Mike Chock at Hana Lima 'Ia, but also to take lessons from Byron Yasui (pictured here playing an instrument Mike is building). Byron is the graduate chair of the music department of the University of Hawaii.

Let me tell you how small the ukulele community is: When I first decided I wanted to build a ukulele, I googled around a bit and found the Hana Lima school. I had no idea if Hana Lima was a reputable outfit or not, so I posted to the bulletin board at Jim Beloff's website, Flea Market Music. Many people responded positively about the Hana Lima school, and one guy named Geoff who had actually taken the course recommended it highly, so I contacted Hana Lima for more information in order to help me write my grant proposal. Asa Chock, Mike's son, wrote back telling me that if I was writing a grant proposal, I should contact one of their former students who was also a teacher and had also attended the school on a grant. His name was Geoff Davis. I figured the name Geoff was not common enough that this was a coincidence, so I went back to the Flea Market bulletin board to get in contact with Geoff. Geoff then sent me parts of his grant proposal and gave me plenty of other advice, including telling me that while he was here he took ukulele lessons from Byron Yasui. I thought that sounded like a good idea so I decided to do that too.

A few months later, after my grant proposal was accepted, I attended the New York Uke Fest. On my way there, I saw a woman carrying a ukulele and, figuring we were on our way to the same place, I struck up a conversation. We talked about lots of stuff, like the weather, ukuleles, and whatnot before my grant just happened to enter the conversation. As soon as I mentioned Hana Lima, this woman said I should talk to Geoff Davis. I told her that I had already contacted Geoff and that was why I was going to study with Byron. Then she says that she is flying Byron to Dallas the next week to perform at a show she has put together there. When I actually got to the NY Uke Fest, I took some workshops and met lots of strange ukulele folk, including none other than Jim Beloff.

Everyone who plays ukulele knows everyone else. Everyone who doesn't play the uke knows Tiny Tim.

Anyway, I was early to class at Hana Lima today and was still the last one there. People talk about "Hawaii Time," meaning that everything here moves slowly and no one really cares about being on time, but I guess my classmates don't subscribe to that philosophy. We worked feverishly again today and the various pieces we're working on are starting to look like ukuleles. It's pretty cool. I put a mother of pearl inlay around what will soon be the sound hole on my uke, which is a decorative step that I didn't think we would probably bother with in a class like this. Yesterday, I was talking to Mike after class, and he said that he always gets nervous when he is in the latter stages of building a uke. After putting so much work into an instrument, he gets worried that he might make a mistake and ruin it. I know that I'm only two days into a ten day class, but with that inlay my uke looks pretty, and now I'm starting to get nervous.

I hope I don't screw it up.

Byron very generously picked me up from Hana Lima and, after tinkering on an experimental sort of bass ukulele Mike is making, he drove me to his office. Byron is big on music theory, and I've never had any sort of formal training and certainly no instruction in theory, so I was half thinking he would probably say to me, "You know so little that I don't know where to begin. Maybe you need a dumber teacher."

But he didn't, and that was nice.

He started the lesson with a bit of "diagnostic" work, as he called it, to see where I am. First he had me play for him, so I played a few songs I've arranged myself, like "Dream a Little Dream of Me" and "Walkin' After Midnight." He liked 'em. Then we moved on to some theory stuff. I've picked up a lot of music theory tidbits over the years, and we ended up going through most of his intro to music theory material in no time. He was actually impressed with how much I knew, which I never expected. I feel like I know squat. But his diagnostics got him honed in and by the end of class he was pushing me pretty good.

It was a good thing I had a hearty Hawaiian breakfast today, because from 8:30 to 4:00 was nothing but ukulele building and playing madness and I forgot to eat lunch.

[view today's photos]

Monday, July 10, 2006

Kane About Town

Got in last night about 8:00. Hard to believe I'm in Honolulu to build a ukulele. By the time I got settled in, I didn't have much time for more than a stroll around the neighborhood before bed. I wasn't wandering long before I had to pee (I think I drank a gallon of water on the plane), so I started to look for a restroom. Flashback: I'm 7 years old visting Hawaii for the first time and my family is at a secluded beach. The bathrooms are a few hundred yards away across a landscape of surprisingly sharp rocks. I make the painful barefooted walk to the restrooms and stand in front of two doors. They're labeled in Hawaiian. So I turn around and walk the long painful walk back to ask my mom what I am, then turn around and do it again so that I can confidently walk to the door labeled "kane."

Luckily, the restrooms I found last night were labeled in Hawaiian and English, because it was too late to call my mom, and I didn't want to walk in on any peeing wahines. Back at my apartment, I slept better than I might have expected, considering how excited I was to go to my first day of class, but it may have helped a bit that I went to bed at 6:00 in the morning, New York time (midnight here).

I got up with lots of time to spare, which was a good thing since after breakfast it took me about 20 minutes to find out how to get to my class, another 20 to wait for the bus. I'm a nerd about being on time to stuff. I always have this fear that I'll miss something super important. Before I took my first Spanish class a few years ago, I was terrified that if I showed up late to class I would miss the part where you learned to speak Spanish. I was on time though, and it was a good thing since the entire class was taught in Spanish--the teacher never uttered a word in English. If I hadn't gotten there on time, I would have thought that all my worst fears had been realized.

I wasn't so lucky in this case. I was 15 minutes late, and I just knew that everyone else would probably be done building their ukes by now. Well, they weren't, but they were all working industriously and seemed like they knew what they were doing. They didn't. Turns out we're all pretty much in the same boat skill-wise, so I jumped in and caught up quickly.

The class is a bit of a whirlwind. I worked on the front and the back of the uke, the neck, the interior bracing. Mike, my teacher says that it goes fast at first, when you're doing all the rough work, but slows down a lot when you get to the details. Regardless, we all felt like we were going to be finished making our ukes by the end of the day.

We weren't.

[view today's photos]