May 13, 2009 ~ Alan Okami is the vice president for one of the world’s top ‘ukulele manufacturing companies: Koaloha. Koaloha being a family business, he also works in the shop, and doubles as the marketing and PR guy. Alan agreed to an interview via email. Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to answer some of my questions Alan.
Brad Bordessa: Koa is the standard for Hawaiian made ‘ukuleles, but I can’t help noticing that Koaloha seems to be using many different woods lately. Two good examples would be Herb Ohta Jr.’s new ‘ukulele and the Sceptre Ebony. Are you finding that there are other good tonewoods for building ‘ukuleles?
Alan Okami: There are many woods that are suitable for ‘ukulele construction, such as spruce, cedar, mahogany, sapele & redwood to name a few. Koa is the wood of choice for most Hawaiian made brands as the wood carries the identity of the Hawaiian sound and construction. In that way, it creates a little more distinction between brands produced overseas or by mainland guitar companies. That’s not to say they are not able to procure koa, but it is more readily accessible for us here at home.
The Ebony Sceptre and Herb Ohta Jr’s custom models are some of the ways that we are trying to expand the parameters of what people expect from a locally made instrument. This helps us in the future as koa is rapidly becoming scarce. We are looking to develop a line that will still feature koa, but other woods as well. This will help us to be more responsible stewards of what the land can give.
BB: How is the ‘ukulele building business? Has the economy affected sales at all?
AO: We were bracing for a brutal 1st qtr. as many other businesses: however, this may turn out to be one of our better years. We have experienced a bit of growth and look towards expanding our capabilities in order to meet our demand.
We like to think that this is partially due to our marketing and community extensions, but we know that all blessings come from above.
BB: Koa is a rare wood. How are you getting enough to create all of your ‘ukuleles?
AO: That answer can vary from time to time. We presently have 3 mills that we are working with. In times past, it was not necessary to work with more than one. One of our stronger contacts came as a result of a community program that we were commissioned to operate. Typically, that’s how koa works. You need to know someone, and they need to like you.
AO: We are not ones to seek artists in order to pad our stable with talent. It’s difficult to find established artists that are not already working with a manufacturer. It’s not our style to “steal” anyone away. We look at a bunch of criteria before we even consider working with them. This may include: their future intentions, marketability, musicality and most importantly, their attitude. We consider them all part of our ‘ohana and extensions of what we do here at the shop. We’re fanatical about attitude, as they represent us in a different arena than the manufacturing.
If an artist is in consideration, they are normally placed in our “supported” category before we engage them fully. That way, both parties can evaluate whether or not it is a good fit.
BB: Many of my readers are beginners. Can you give them some advice about shopping for a good starter ‘ukulele?
AO: It may surprise your readers to learn that we do not always recommend our brand. KoAlohas like any other hand crafted ‘ukulele should be considered as an investment that can last a lifetime. Before they jump in, we listen to their needs and desire and make recommendations accordingly. Ultimately, we hope that will build a bond of trust and they will choose us when ready to make a purchase in our price range.
We would like to extend our Aloha to all those that are playing ukulele. Though the instrument has been around for many years, it is still a budding market. There are a lot of possibilities for you to shape the future of the ukulele and where it goes. We find those that play ukulele to be very passionate and ferociously protective about their love. Please keep making music and help spread the joy that these little instruments can bring.
BB: Thank you, Alan!