The Happy-Sad-Happy Tale of my Koa Kalane Uke

I will get to the story of the new uke soon, but there's a bit of back-story I haven't blogged about yet, and I should very much like to tell the whole tale...

THE TRIP
Back in October, my husband and I embarked on a trip to Hawaii for our friends' wedding in Kona/Captain Cook. I was thrilled to get to bring my little travel uke, my Makala Dolphin named Kalakala, along with me to actually play a ukulele in Hawaii! On a beach!
Kalakala, the Great Traveling Uke

So she came along, as she does, in my little purple carry-on. This picture was taken at the Kona airport as we arrived, ready to jam.

The wedding was beautiful, the entire wedding party as awesome as we would expect from two awesome people, and we had a fabulous time. I would play my uke every day, often on our lanai overlooking the Pacific ocean. I took her down to the beach cove by our hotel and played her quietly while Chris swam in the warm blue waters. Ya know, that kinda rough life.

I figured while I was in Hawaii, I really wanted to look into getting a local ukulele. Now "local", for me, can mean a lot of things. It could be something which had history there, perhaps a vintage one from a second hand shop; or a new one which has its roots there, either made there or finished there. I asked a uke seller at an outdoor market for a line on local stuff, and she gave me a couple recommendations, including a local custom luthier (too much $$ for this trip), as well as checking out a pawn shop which was practically walking distance from our hotel. Sadly my hunt couldn't begin immediately, as we had wedding shit to do. Like the fabulous wedding itself! Followed by a date with the wedding party and some snorkeling the following day.

My view from my towel, with the whole gang there.
On our first snorkeling day, we met up with everyone at the designated beach, and we snagged this perfect spot under the shade of a stand of palm trees. I snorkeled a while in the ocean, made friends with some little sea turtles and saw lots of beautiful fish. Back on land, I had a glass of wine and a snack, and then started strumming quietly as I sat on my beach towel near the group. Sometimes I was playing snippets of songs I know, and other times just playing with chord progressions and making my own improvised tunes. I stopped after a bit, thinking I was getting too repetitive and didn't want to disturb the family and friends nearby. As I did, one of the ladies turned around and asked me to keep playing because she was finding it to be just the perfect soundtrack to the beautiful Hawaiian day. The bride turned around at hearing this and said she thought she was just hearing distant ukulele music being played on a radio or something, and she was just wishing they hadn't turned it off because she was enjoying it so much! So I kept strumming on and off over the afternoon, just loving that I could not only play for my enjoyment, but well enough to bring a smile to our friends' faces, too. The memory alone makes my heart smile.

SHOPPING!
We started our hunt the next day at Da Hock Shop in Kailua. They had five or six ukes there in varying states of quality, most of which I recognized. But there was one there with that mysterious label with nothing more than "Koa Kalane" and a hotmail address on the label loosely glued inside the sound hole. We looked up the brand and the only real references to it were on a well-known ukulele forum, with people asking the same questions we were about where they come from and noting that they could be found at only a few places, among them the Kona Kmart. I couldn't imagine I was going to walk into a Kmart and walk out with a quality instrument, so we hit up a few more second hand shops before I shrugged and said why don't we at least go check them out.

Note case among souvenir snacks and hats!
We wandered the store a bit looking for a section with musical instruments. A sweet but dottering old woman who worked there said they didn't have any, but my husband suggested we ask a second opinion, and I'm glad we did. There was a guy unloading boxes who I snagged to ask, and he practically lit up to talk about the ukes they have. He is a local and said his father and uncle used to make ukuleles and the ones this store carries rival some that cost two and three times more. He says it is a "local guy" who makes them and only sells them at a few locations in the islands--no mass distribution, HI is the only place you'll really find his stuff so it's almost like a local secret. He offered to personally walk us up to take a look at them, which we gladly accepted.

As you can see from the picture, they are in the "souvenir" section up front at this Kona Kmart. Like, among the cheesy gifts you bring home for coworkers--cheap towels and plastic leis line the aisles, but at the back corner is a glass case. Within it, a selection of 6-7 different ukes including sopranos, concerts, and tenors. Some had inlay, some were cuataways, one had the turtle design etched multiple times across the top. All had gorgeous real wood grains, each with varying darkness of stains, so really the case was filled with over a dozen different beauties to try and choose from. All under $300, which was my hoped budget for this shopping trip. I woulda gone as high as $1000 if I fell in love, but $300 used was what I had hoped for...I didn't think I would get sub-$200 new of any quality...at a KMART?!

Long story longer, the guy had to get a manager to come open the case for me to handle them and choose which would be mine. He also knew just a little about them, but enough to know that those in the know in the area laugh when people go up the street to some music centers and pay exorbitant prices for ukes when you can get these local hand-made ones for this price. He says since they are hand made, they encourage people to take their time choosing, since even between the same styles you are going to get different sounds. And boy was he right. I didn't bring my tuner and most of them were understandably wildly out of tune, but the manager even helped me try to tune a few of them to at least sound more similar in pitch so I could suss out which tone I liked better. I kept apologizing for taking up so much time, but he kept encouraging me to take my time and find the best one for my taste.

I was torn. I wanted three of them!! But in the end, I chose a tenor cutaway which had a warm tone I couldn't resist. It even came with Aquilla strings and a padded zipper case of decent quality with the Koa Kalane logo stitched on it. I was so happy to have it, and just laughing internally that I was going to go home and tell everyone I bought my new local Hawaiian uke...at the Kmart. Here is the result of my demanding hubby take a photo of my triumphant pose with her out in front of the "Big K" sign for kicks.


SOMETHING'S NOT RIGHT
I played her a little on the trip, but not much since we were heading home 24 hours later. Then once home, we both had incredible sinus infections which sent us to urgent care and laid us both up, literally, for nearly a month after we got back from our vacation. So other than some pathetic plunking at it out of a desperate desire to get to play, I didn't get much time with it until late November. Which is when I noticed I was getting some buzzing on the G string, and maybe a little on the A string? I wasn't sure if it was the power of suggestion, since in the very limited posts about this brand uke, someone else had reported buzzing. I also did some research and was pretty sure the action was too high (strings high off the fret board), but dismissed my concerns as those of a fledgling who doesn't know what the hell she was talking about. Ultimately, I really wasn't enjoying the sound of my ukulele at all and didn't pick it up much, vowing to bring it to Dusty Strings to get it set up properly. But holidays struck, and another bout of illness, and it wasn't until the new year I even got out to get it checked out.

Skip to yesterday. I head to Dusty Strings. They are closed, on this single day all year, for inventory! I am about to slam my head into a wall with frustration when a nice man at the door asks me if I am there for a private lesson. I said no, it is for an evaluation on my uke, and the angel that he is, he took me inside and went back to see if the luthiers were willing to take a look at it and give me an estimate today. Relieved, I came inside and he asked me what was up. I told him about hearing what seemed to be buzzing, but admitted I am far from experienced and could be just my playing, so I brought it to them to examine. He played it a bit and nodded. "On the G string?" Yep, I confirmed, feeling validated that I was not insane. He took it to the back and I took a seat.

About 15-20 minutes later he comes out to deliver the bad news. He told me if I looked down the neck of the ukulele, I could see a leeeetle bowing on the right (top) side of the fret board. I peered at it and while barely perceptible, yes it was definitely there. "You bought this in Hawaii, did you?" he asked, having guessed the answer already as I nodded. He explained that this is a common problem with ukes made/purchased in Hawaii. You are purchasing an item made of wood from a humid climate and bringing it back to a comparatively dryer climate. The result is that the wood then starts to contract from drying out more than it is used to back in the tropical climate. With the fretboard being a different wood than the neck, they contract at different rates. Since they are glued together, this causes the fretboard to curve/bow from the contraction and pressure underneath.

The additional bad news is that the usual solution, shaving down the bowing spot, is impossible due to the thinness of the fretboard on this particular uke. And the alternative, which would be to basically take the entire thing apart and replace the necessary components, would cost me 2-3X the purchase price of the uke in the first place (around $450 minimum). To add insult to injury, I was also right that the action is really high on this instrument, but they can't fix that either because it will just make the buzzing worse since the strings will bottom out on that warped section of the fretboard.

He was super nice and sympathetic, chatting me up about this problem across ukuleles, guitars, and other stringed instruments, and what a frustration it can be. He complimented the instrument otherwise, saying the cut of the wood was top notch, the warmth of tone is lovely, and otherwise it is a really good quality instrument. He said he played it a bit with the repair team, and the buzzing isn't the worst they ever heard, and if I can get past it, it's a good "messing around" instrument. Though notably, he also added that it's so pretty it will even look good as a showpiece hanging on a wall. "A pretty souvenir," I grumbled sadly with a smirk as he nodded. Little did he know the inside joke: that I had, after all, picked it up in the souvenir section of a Kmart...

Home I went, head hung low to report back to my husband that my joyful Hawaiian acquisition is a bust. He actually offered to pay the exorbitant amount to repair it if I really wanted to preserve this ukulele, but I told him it wouldn't be the same ukulele when they were done with it if they did the replacements anyway. I would rather just set my sights on a new uke in the future, and let this one be a pretty one to look at, pull out at parties for people to play with, that kind of thing. He was sad for me, but supportive.

THE GOOD NEWS
This morning I spent some time doing some paperwork and answering mails. As a distraction I decided to pop over to Craigslist, as I do sometimes, and see what ukuleles are for sale in the area and what prices they are selling for. My eyes latch onto a sassy cherry red concert uke. I read about it, but there wasn't much detail. It's a good price for a Kamoa...and she's reeeeeally pretty. So I casually send an email asking details on the history of the instrument, expecting I wouldn't hear back for a day or two--enough time for me to "cool off". Instead, within minutes I get a mail back, and the guy says he is selling it just because hasn't played it much. He's had it about a year, it's in great condition. And he lives about 10 minutes away from me. And is home today if I want to check it out. I close the mail to try and put it to rest for now, not allowing myself to be too sorely tempted to try and buy a ukulele spur of the moment. It's so soon after I "lost" my last one...

A couple minutes later I get another mail. He wrote that he just realized we spoke before about this very uke. He had it for sale a few months ago, and I had written back then to inquire about it, but he had told me it sold. Turns out the friend who was going to buy it off of him never did buy it, so he put it back up for sale. And to boot, he put it up for sale at the lower price I happened to offer in my initial mail back a few months ago (about $25 cheaper than his original asking price).

Today.

Of all days.

It's the only ukulele I have ever sent an inquiry about on Craigslist, though I have looked at many over the last year just to peruse. And then I find I have inquired about it twice. And it's discounted even more. FATE?

So I send hubby a cloying message online, telling him my little tale...leaving it conspicuously open-ended. "So what are you proposing?" he asks pointedly. I tell him I may want to check it out. He says cool. I say the price. He says cool. I say the seller has invited me to check it out today. He says he'll come with me.

And that, as they say, was that.
The crazed eyes of a ukulele addict


Welcome the newest member of my ukulele family. She's my first concert, and first uke set up with Low G tuning. She RESONATES. My sassy new lady.

Don't judge. Even you can't deny...it was fate!!


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