When you put your heart into something, it comes through, whether you want it to or not.”
Paul Okami tells me this in KoAloha ‘Ukulele’s showroom in an industrial part of Honolulu as I admire the handcrafted koa instruments hanging on the wall. As I pluck a few strings, I understand what Paul means. There’s a certain warmth resonating from the instrument, and as I swipe my fingers over each string, the quality of the ‘ukulele is abundantly clear. The sound is crisp, the notes are vibrant and just strumming it brings me joy. What makes this ‘ukulele shine is beyond me, and I ask Paul, who cofounded KoAloha ‘Ukulele along with his father, brother and mother, how he and his ‘ohana (family) have built something so delightful to play.
“You want the short answer or the long answer?” he asks. He doesn’t wait for my response. “I’ll go with the short answer first. It’s magic.”
The long answer comes in the form of a workshop tour, which is why I’ve come to KoAloha Ukulele’s Kaka‘ako factory and showroom. The family-run operation turns 25 this year and is known for its meticulously crafted, high-end instruments; the retail cost of a KoAloha ‘Ukulele soprano starts at $900, which is similar in price to other premium ‘ukulele brands such as Kamaka ‘Ukulele and Kanile‘a ‘Ukulele.
“It’s a handcrafted item; there’s an attention to detail and knowing all of the little things that go into making an ‘ukulele,” says Paul, who leads me into the workshop.
Inside the factory there’s a cacophony of noises much less pleasant than the ones I was hearing in the showroom. The grinding of sanders, the buzzing of saws, the cutting of wood. Paul, dressed in a black tank top, shorts and athletic shoes, looks at home in this small, cluttered workspace filled with the tools and machinery needed to build beautiful instruments. He stares intensely at a pile of koa in the corner of the room, which I find out is where the ‘ukulele-making process begins.
“I look at each board individually and see if a certain part of a certain board meets the qualifications to become a side, a back, a fret board or a bracing of an ‘ukulele,” says Paul. “If I have a question or a doubt, I won’t use it.”
Roughly 75% of the koa imported from Hawai‘i Island will end up becoming part of an ‘ukulele, with the rest being sold to local craftsmen.
From here, Paul takes me through the workshop’s various stations. At one, the wood is evaluated; at another, it’s veneered into thin pieces, dried out, sanded and assembled into the body of an ‘ukulele. At another station, the body of the instrument is sanded even more and then sprayed with a durable finish coating. Paul lays it out for me in broad strokes, but the process for making even the smallest ‘ukulele, a soprano, includes more than 300 steps, with the instrument constantly being checked for mistakes and imperfections. The entire process takes a week, and with a staff of only 14—including the four family members who started the business—who has to contend with numerous custom orders, repairs and keeping their showroom stocked with models, this may seem like a tall order. KoAloha ‘Ukulele, however, originally began its operation on a much smaller scale.
In 1995, Alvin and Pat Okami began making ‘ukulele with their two sons, Paul and Alan. Alvin had been creating custom acrylic pieces out of his garage to make ends meet, and his wife, Pat, was working at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa bookstore. One day, legendary Hawai‘i musician Herb Ohta suggested that Alvin, who had once been a vocalist and oboe player in Ohta’s band, change course and make ‘ukulele instead of custom acrylic plastic pieces and fittings. The thought was planted in Alvin’s mind, but he didn’t have the tools needed to make the instruments.
Weeks later, opportunity literally knocked on Alvin’s workshop door in the form of a jewelry manufacturing sales representative, who just so happened to be peddling everything Alvin needed start to building ‘ukulele, albeit on a miniature scale. Taking it as a sign, Alvin began making fully playable mini ukes before being persuaded by Pat to simply make regular-sized instruments. “The beginning was a challenge,” says Paul. “My brother and I didn’t make enough money to get paid at first so we had other jobs. He went to bellhop at the Royal Hawaiian [hotel] and I worked nights at Petland in Ala Moana Center.”
The Okami business and ‘ohana has grown since then—and not in the traditional way. Paul believes that everyone he works with is family, and he says they sure act like it, joking around with one another in the factory and eating lunch together every day. “For us, the family atmosphere is integral to what we do here,” says Paul. “When people ask us what we do, our answer is that we touch lives by reaching out and bringing joy to people through music. And you can’t hope to accomplish that in a rigid, lifeless work environment.”
Sitting with Paul in the factory’s shipping and packaging room, where the tour ends, I think I finally have a grasp on what makes KoAloha’s ‘ukulele sound so great. It’s not magic, but it’s something close. It’s passion. Walking through the workshop, it’s clear to see that everyone involved in the process of making ‘ukulele—from Paul examining the koa to longtime employees like Ben sanding down parts and Gritz working on custom pieces—is extremely passionate about their work, and it shows. Even the name, KoAloha, comes from the heart.
“Dad put together koa and aloha. That’s how he created the name. But what we didn’t know was that kou aloha actually means ‘your love,’ and that means a lot to us,” says Paul. “You build something with passion, and you build something with heart, and you put genuine positive feelings of love into it and it shows and it comes back to you. For us, that’s what ‘your love’ means.”
KoAloha ‘Ukulele offers free tours at 1 p.m. Monday through Friday at its Kaka‘ako location, 1234 Kona St., Second Floor, Honolulu, (808) 847-4911, koaloha.com.