By Helen Chang
Mele Music is a small shop near Wailuku, at the foot of the breathtaking Iao Valley that bathes its visitors in moist, cool rainforest air.
The store showcases the well-known Mele brand of ukuleles, created by the husband-and-wife team of Michael and Cheryl Rock. Cheryl, who grew up in the Philippines, met Michael, a former custom-furniture woodworker, in Maui. Michael makes the instruments in his factory a few miles away, while Cheryl sells them in the shop and online.
Mele Ukulele is a ukulele wonderland, with walls covered in instruments of all shapes, sizes, colors and woods – catering to players of all levels. There were big ukes, small ukes; tenors, sopranos, baritones, bases; pineapple shapes, figure-eight shapes; four strings, six strings, eight strings; and ukes made from koa, mahogany, redwood, cedar, spruce and other woods.
The Rocks founded Mele Music in 1993, specializing in mid-priced ukes. They used Cheryl’s Filipino connections to arrange for assembly work in the Philippines, followed by finishing work in Maui. Today, they sell some 3,000 ukuleles a year, more than a third to U.S. mainlanders. The prices range from about $200 to $1,000 each.
Interview with, Cheryl Rock, owner of Mele Music
Video by Helen Chang
“The ukulele, in my opinion, has been enjoying a solid come back,” Cheryl said. “For nearly 20 years now … we’ve only seen demand grow.”
Mele ukuleles are made from solid wood, allowing for rich sounds that improve over time. In contrast, lower-end brands use tinnier-sounding laminate woods, she explained. The native Hawaiian koa – the Olympic gold of ukulele woods – is the most popular. Found only in Hawaii, the rare and protected wood can only be purchased through authorized sellers.
“It has crisp, bright tones and it’s a beautiful wood,” she said.
Uncle Peter Jams on the Uke
A mocha-skinned man playing a ukulele with a Mele tag hanging from it was sitting in a chair next to a window at Mele Music. Cheryl Rock identified him as Uncle Peter, a retired musician, who regularly strums for visitors to the store. That day he provided a pop-up concert as he played classics including “White Sandy Beach,” “Kanaka Wai Wai” and “Misty.”
As I listened, I got misty eyed myself, thinking about those childhood favorite songs.
Uncle Peter plays "White Sandy Beach" on the ukulele
Video by Helen Chang
What are your favorite songs to play on the uke? Share in the comments box.
Where to find them:
1750 Kaahumanu Ave
Wailuku, Maui, Hawaii 96793