Ukulele Boom Generates Global Sales for Hawaii Companies

Some local companies turn to Asian manufacturers to meet demand

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Photo: Ryan McVay/ThinkStock

Hawaii companies face language and communication challenges with their manufacturers abroad, particularly in China and Indonesia, but one advantage is that both countries have woodworking traditions, partly because classical instruments, such as violins and cellos, have been made there for years.

“It was hard with communication, distance and quality, so, every couple of months, you’re flying over there,” says Bonk of Koolau. “Basically, they copy what I build here. I give the blueprints and show how braces, top and body should be carved and built.

“We use all solid wood, no laminates. Then we do the final setup here, putting the strings on, adjusting the action. Everything gets checked out once it gets here.”

Kala’s distribution center in Hawaii welcomes a container load of instruments for the Hawaii market every couple of weeks and each ukulele is checked before it is sent to retailers.

Other containers head to California for distribution across the mainland. Still others find their way to Singapore and Hong Kong for the Asian and Middle Eastern markets, and England and Germany for Europe.

“We’re looking for ways to produce more,” Upton says. “That’s a challenge. It takes a lot of skill to make them to our standard. All our sizes seem to be popular, but the tenors especially. It’s next to the largest and seems to be the one people want.”

Photo: Courtesy Kamaka Hawaii

Prices run the gamut from just under $40 to custom pieces that cost thousands of dollars. Kala’s most popular range is from $120 to $650.

“The ukulele shops in Waikiki are for tourists and a lot of them want to purchase one in Hawaii,” says Upton. “That’s a big market for sure. But so is the local market.”

At Easy Music Center on South King Street, an entire wall of gleaming ukuleles offers something for every taste.

“We see a wide variety of customers, from people just starting out to people who have been playing awhile, to tourists,” says Will Evrard, who will be manager of the new Easy Music Center in Kapolei.

“The tourists who come from Japan or Australia will buy the Kamakas and Kanileas. But people just starting out, looking for their first instrument, or buying for a little 8-year-old, we definitely don’t suggest a $700 Kamaka. We recommend the $50 Kala. We have some that start at $37 and they’re not toys. Everything we sell here is actually a playable instrument.”

Easy Music Center’s owner and manager, Peter Dods, credits ukulele sales with his store’s booming business and his ability to expand from one store to three in just a few years.

“Ukulele is my No. 1 gross-profit producer,” says Dods. His expansion to Kapolei is an attempt to capture the new tourist market being created by the Disney resort and other sites in Ko Olina.

Kamaka, now in its 95th year, cornered the market years ago in high-end koa ukulele. Kamaka – which continues to make everything by hand in the Islands – can’t keep up with today’s demand.

“There’s huge popularity all over the world,” says Alice Kaahanui, office manager for Kamaka.  “We’re basically getting orders from every country. Our stores are still on a six-to-eight-week back order and individual orders are about three to five weeks on back order. We especially have a lot of inquiries from Thailand and just opened an authorized dealer there.”

Starting about a decade ago, Kaahanui and others say, entertainers began driving the worldwide interest in ukulele.

Those musicians have included local ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro and Eddie Vedder, singer and guitarist with the rock band Pearl Jam, who released a solo album called “Ukulele Songs.”

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