Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part III

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

Honestly, when I sat down to write about my history with the ukulele, I wasn’t imaging a series. It’s just that I hate huge blocks of text. I like my stories bite-sized. So if you haven’t yet, I highly recommend reading Part I and Part II first before continuing on.

Let me set the stage: it’s 2012 (yes, finally, for real this time). Girlfriend Anne and I have moved in together. My ukuleles are in the closet in their cases. We’ve planned a vacation to Hawai’i for the Fall, between our birthdays. Ten nights on Oahu, my first real vacation since college, her first time in the islands.

Right at the beginning of the trip, we go the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. I mean it mostly as an exercise to pick up a few trinkets, and to ground Anne in the “real pricing” of things in Hawai’i, keep us from wasting money in the touristy shops if we doesn’t have to.

Pacific Ukulele Tenor ESU-T14B Ukulele
The uke that that sets my heart strumming, a zebra wood Pacific Ukulele ESU-T14B

While I’m walking around, I see a stand with ukuleles. So I stroll over, curious to see what I remember. I see an uke on display with a sale sign. It’s a slim-body, zebra wood tenor. I pick it up, and it doesn’t sound half-bad. It’s easy to hold, easier even than the more expensive Kala I have back at home in my closet.

I fiddle with it, and it starts coming back to me. The only song I’d really dedicated myself to leaning in college, a finger-picking intro for September in the Rain. I have no references with me but my own memory. So I start picking. I keep making mistakes, but every time I start over I get a little bit farther, and my grin gets a little bit brighter.

I ask Anne if I should get it. We’re living together after all. If me practicing is going to bother her, than I might as well put this back on the rack and keep on walking.

For the millionth time I’m reminded why I love this woman. She tells me to go for it. She’s been listening to me play, and despite all the mistakes and backtracking, despite all the evidence that I have a long way to go, she tells me she’d love to have that atmosphere around that apartment.

So I buy it, even getting a cheaper price and a free tuner because their credit card scanner breaks down during my transaction, and I have to go run to an ATM to get cash.

I take the uke back to the hotel, meaning to take it along with us a we travel around the island. I strum a little in the hotel room, but otherwise the bug is only nibbling. It’s a nervous new energy- am I going to really pick this up again? Am I going to stick with it this time?

During the week I pick up a some books from a local music store, and a bunch of CDs of ukulele music for us to listen to in the rental car. And I plunk around with that intro to September in the Rain during those the slow moments on the beach.

The next weekend we’re back at the Swap Meet. Now that we’ve been around the island a bit, Anne’s ready to buy some gifts and stuff for the apartment. I mention that I’d always wanted a pineapple shaped ukulele, and that if we happen to see one, I might pick one up.

Melokia Soprano Pineapple Ukulele
I knew I needed a pineapple uke, and this solid acacia Melokia was just too gorgeous to pass up

This time I find a different ukulele stall, one with some seriously gorgeous instruments. I can see right away the bump in quality over the stall I visited last time, and the owner confirms it when he starts teaching me how to shop for ukuleles. I find out that the zebra wood I bought a week ago is a laminate, and though it’s still a fine instrument, the wood layers will probably split and make it sound awful in thirty years. But the way I see it, it was the right price, the right sound, and it got me back in the game.

Anyways, as I’m talking to him, I spot a pretty little pineapple uke hanging on his wall, and he lets me take it for a spin.

It’s solid acacia, trimmed in mother of pearl, and has gold tuners. The sound is sweet and mellow, and I know I simply have to have it. After I’ve made my purchase, he takes down a $3000 Kanile’a, and lets me play that for a second. My brain almost melts at how awesome it sounds, even in my beginner hands. Out of my price range, but he gives me a brochure, which I slaver over for the rest of the day.

So fast forward to the final few days of our trip, and so we’re heading up to North Shore to watch the surfers. On the way, I see a sign for an ukulele store, and I convince Anne to pull over for lunch at the taco place next door. Then of course, we pop in to see the ukes.

It’s an ukulele-lover’s dream shop! Walls and walls of beautiful ukes. And ss I get to talking to the guy working the counter, and I see a few HMS logos, I start putting two and two together and see that hey, I’ve stumbled upon the Hawaiian Music Supply’s home store! These are the guys my grandmother bought my first uke from, back when they were selling ukes out of the back of a van.

Kala Travel Soprano KA-SSTU Ukulele
The last uke I bought in Hawaii, a Kala Travel Soprano KA-SSTU

I try out a bunch of ukes, and Anne just kind of nods and smiles as I regurgitate everything I’ve learned about ukes from reading online on my phone during our downtimes in the hotel. I finally decide I need just one more ukulele, this time a Kala Travel Soprano. I’ve only been gawking at them all week on my phone.

I get the action lowered so I can play it easier, and in a bit of logistics, have them pack and ship me the zebra tenor I bought at the beginning of the week, so Anne and I only have the two smallest ukuleles to get on the plane.

We spend that very afternoon on the beach, watching the surf come in, and now with my two newest ukes, I teach her the beginning of the intro I’ve been practicing all week.

On our way back home we get caught in the whole Alaska Airlines’ network crash, and so we’re stuck in the terminal for hours. But there I am, happy as a flea (on a pile of dogs, you see) strumming away on my new ukuleles.

The bug’s bit me hard this time.

But wait, the story’s just getting started. Do I stick with it post-vacation? Stay tuned and find out!

Update (06-APR-2013): Continue reading with Part IV!


Rekindling a lost four-string love, Part I

My Ukuleles From Smallest to Largest

I first picked up an ukulele in the summer before college- a little late you might say, considering I’d spent my childhood immersed in native Hawaiian culture.

I was surrounded by all the right an ingredients: Hawaiian music and instruments about the house, my mother who not only taught hula, but also choreographed new dances and put on performances, with all of the endless dedication and practice that that lifestyle requires.

Still, I was never forced (like many children) to learn a musical instrument. The most I’d ever done is dink around with a Casio keyboard, learning Elvis’ “Love Me Tender”. Other then that, I couldn’t read sheet music, didn’t know a thing about music theory, never showed more than a passing interest in any school musical programs.

Fast forward to 2002, when on a family vacation to Hawaii, I began fooling around with a cheap toy ukulele I’d got at the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet. My grandmother asked me if I was serious about the instrument, and that if I was, she’d get me a “real one.”

Lanikai Soprano LU-11 Ukulele
My first uke, a Lanikai LU-11

I said I was serious, so she bought me a little soprano Lanikai. We got it from the Hawaiian Music Supply, back when they were selling ukes out of a van, before they became the ukulele powerhouse that they are today.

I spent as much time as I could on that instrument, and while in college I even joined Berkeley’s Royal Hawaiian Ukulele Band for a time. Had a lot of fun, but it was hard to make progress: I couldn’t practice too much in the dorms, and the band’s “practices” often had 40+ participants, and was really aimed at members who could already play so they could practice the band’s set list.

The best sessions were the after-practice jams at Mike Dailva‘s workshop, who since then has been growing in recognition as a master ukulele luthier.

But I struggled a lot with the size of that soprano Lanikai; I could never keep the thing from falling over, and as this was around the time I started having RSI problems with my wrists and fingers, clutching it upright only made it harder to stay motivated and keep playing.

Thankfully by the time I’d left for the Peace Corps in 2006, I’d found part of my salvation in the larger, tenor-sized ukuleles. My grandmother had loaned me an antique Suzuki ukulele, and through it was easier to hold, it hadn’t aged well in appearance or sound quality.

Kala KA-STE-C Tenor Ukulele
First uke with my own money, a Kala KA-STE-C

So when I went back to Hawaii after graduation, I picked up a brand new tenor from Kala.

It was easier to hold than the Lanikai, easier to play, and sounded great! Problem was, I still didn’t have any real guidance on how to get any better. I took the Kala with me to Tanzania (logically I’d take my newest, largest, most expensive instrument abroad), and while it served as a great reminder of home during training, by the time I’d be assigned to Zanzibar, the uke spent more time in the case than out.

I came back from Africa no better at playing- my ukes had become decorations, ones I proudly displayed, even if I couldn’t do much with them. I brought them with me when I moved up to Washington in 2008, and I left the tenor out on guitar stand, even though the stand was too big and the uke was always at risk of toppling over.

I hardly touched them, and it wasn’t until four years later that ukulele bug bit me again, and hard. Stay tuned for that story next time.


Update (29-MAR-2013): Continue reading with Part II!

My heart was cast in the Hawaiian islands

By association with nature’s enormities, a man’s heart may truly grow big also. – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

I grew up immersed in the culture of Hawaiʻi. My family is Native Hawaiian on my mother’s side; my recently passed grandmother was 75% Hawaiian, which makes my mother, siblings, and myself all hapa haole. My mother grew up in Oʻahu before the family uprooted for the mainland; there they quickly built ties with the local Polynesian community. She started dancing hula as a little girl, and grew up to teach hula as a kumu hula for many different hālaus.

I myself have never lived in Hawaiʻi, though I’ve gone to Oʻahu on many extended vacations. The longest of which was three weeks back in 2000: two with family, and a third spent camping at Camp Pupukea. There I focused on learning traditional Hawaiian skills (as opposed to the regular Scout stuff) and earned the Hawaiiana Award. That’s probably the closet thing to work I’ve done in the islands, and trust me, once your feet touch sand, work is the last thing on your mind.

Most trips I’ve gone with family, and the trips have ranged in activity from an elaborate multi-family reunion (all housed in a multi-million dollar mansion), to spending a week in a three-room concrete condo barbecuing and flying a kite on the beach. But whatever the action, there’s no such thing as a bad trip to the islands.

There’s something ethereal about Hawaiʻi, a slight hum and a heartbeat I can’t explain, something that hits me in the chest the moment I land and whose throb beckons me back as soon as I leave. I feel at home with the sun, sea, salt and surf- a unique connection with the land that I don’t feel any where else. When you’re in Hawaiʻi, it’s what defines you; your cares, every measure by which you evaluate your life, simply melts away. So though I say my soul was forged in the redwood forest, my heart was definitely cast in Hawaiian islands.

As this post goes out, I’ll be on a non-stop flight to Oʻahu with girlfriend Anne for a ten-night vacation; my first “real” vacation since I moved to Washington, and Anne’s first time in the islands. I’m going to have to balance the desire to just kick back on the beach with showing her all the best “touristy” sights: the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hanauma Bay, Nuʻuanu Pali, and of course, Matsumoto Shave Ice.

Anne wants to swim with turtles- yes, we’ll do that too.