Maui Ukulele Makers Create Musical Connections

Despite worldwide popularity, the instrument retains this island’s essence

By Helen Chang

Uncle Keaunui’s fingers held the ukulele like an old friend, his voice a river sweeping over smooth pebbles. His songs evoked images of an older Hawaii – when sugarcane plantations dominated the landscape, “condotels” didn’t swamp the shoreline and it took days to reach the then-remote island of Maui.

Kanikapila with Uncle K.K.

“Uncle K.K.,” as he is commonly called, was playing an impromptu concert at his friend Ken Potts’ ukulele-making workshop in Lahaina, Maui. Potts is a ukulele craftsman who repairs vintage classics and makes high-end custom ukuleles at his shop, KP Ukulele and Guitars.

“I love musical instruments,” Potts said. “It’s … a privilege to me to be able to work on them (and) have people come to get them fixed.”

Potts was one of several Maui ukulele makers I met during a recent trip with my boyfriend, Robert, to Maui. As ukulele players based in San Diego, we were eager to visit makers of instruments that give us so much joy.

What is your favorite ukulele jam?

Uncle KK plays "Ikona" on the ukulele
Video by Helen Chang

Ukulele Renaissance

The humble ukulele has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, sustained by its affordability. Pop hits have also raised its mainstream profile – such as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” and the album “Ukulele Songs” from Eddy Vedder, who fronts the alternative-rock band Pearl Jam.

Meanwhile, ukulele virtuosos such as Jake Shimabukuro (who achieved fame through a viral YouTube video of a New York performance) have transformed the once-tacky instrument into a respected musical powerhouse. In Southern California, ukulele groups have mushroomed, appealing to everyone from hipsters to retirees.

Cheryl Rock, owner of Mele ukuleles in Maui, credits Shimabukuro and Kamakawiwo’ole for the instrument’s resurgence.

“They’ve made it to the world stage with their music, and they’ve brought the ukulele to prominence,” she said.

Introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the late 1800s, the small guitar braguina became the ukulele – “jumping flea” in Hawaiian – due to the way the fingers jump across the fret board. Today, the Hawaii Ukulele Guild claims about 300 luthier members, who form a cottage industry in the islands.

Best of Maui Ukulele

Although there is no definitive count of luthiers in Maui, three stand out: Potts, whose custom-made KP ukuleles cater to high-end customers; Mele, whose moderately priced ukes appeal to a middle market; and Edmond Tavares, who donates his homemade ukuleles to charities.

We also visited several retail stores on Maui, including Bounty Music , which serves as a hub for Maui’s professional musicians.

But I found a greater thrill in meeting actual ukulele makers. Listening to their instruments gave us a connection to the island that went beyond the tourist playground that Maui has become.

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