Nestled in the tropical paradise of Kaneohe, Hawaii, Kanile`a `Ukulele is located in the birthplace of the very thing it creates and celebrates, the beloved four-string ukulele. Since the late ’90s, the company, the name of which means “joyful sound,” has been committed to crafting high-quality instruments from aged koa.
“Koa wood is the standard,” said Kaimana Souza, director of sales and marketing at Kanile`a `Ukulele, who is the eldest son of the founders and co-owners Joe and Kristen Souza. “It’s a rare tonewood on the island. It’s indigenous to Hawaii.”
Kanile`a `Ukulele remains committed to handcrafting high-quality, professional instruments
Of the 2,200 ukuleles the company makes every year, nearly 99% are built from this exotic tonewood.
“We only use trees that have already fallen – no live trees are used,” Kaimana added. “It’s not a law, but it’s an unwritten guideline in the community.”
Once the logs are harvested, they are aged for about a year in Kanile`a `Ukulele’s 7,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art, humidity-controlled facility. Then the production process begins, which typically takes between four to six weeks, depending on the model and level of difficulty.
“All the models are assembled and finished 100% in Hawaii,” Kaimana said.
The result is a high-end instrument that costs between $750 and $4,000. Because of the high price points, Kanile`a ukuleles are mostly geared toward professionals, hobbyists and collectors, but the company also offers a line of affordable ukuleles under its Islander brand, which is distributed by EMD Music in the U.S., Canada and Western Europe.
“That’s our import line, ranging from $150 to $400. It’s designed to our specifications. We come up with all of the designs, shapes and sizing, and they’re manufactured overseas,” Kaimana said. “We want people to play ukuleles, and we know not everybody is going to go for the Hawaiian koa, so we want to introduce them to what we think is a good ukulele and offer them a very good price.”
Helping musicians of all ages and skill levels discover the joy of the portable instrument has been Kanile`a’s goal since the beginning, Kaimana said.
“There’s something that’s hard to put into words that can be felt when you’re playing the ukulele. It’s so relaxing and it can be like your best friend,” he said. “There’s so many different things going on in the world that could be causing heartache for somebody, and we want to offer everyone a ukulele, whether it’s a beginner or a high-end model, to be there for them when they need it.”
Because it’s a fun and easy instrument to pick up and play, Kaimana said the ukulele craze is as a “global phenomenon” with no end in sight.
“With worldwide musicians beginning to use the ukulele, whether it’s fully incorporated into their music or even just a little bit, the trend is just beginning,” Kaimana said. “People will try it out and fall in love with it.”
Even though ukulele demand might rise, Kaimana said Kanile`a will stick to its core values: providing solid service and products.
“We will always try to produce the highest quality of ukuleles and offer the best customer service to dealers and end-users,” he said. “We always strive to have a good reputation, good products out in the market and treat everyone with the coined aloha spirit that we have here in Hawaii and it’s really strong in our company. One of our values that everyone in our company has to understand and live by is service, whether that’s to their fellow co-workers, to the customers or to themselves–just always being conscientious of what’s happening all around us.”
In addition to focusing on its core values, Kanile`a is committed to reforesting Hawaii, a project founded by Joe and Kristen Souza.
“In 2014, they came up with a pretty simple goal: to plant a koa tree for every ukulele we build. It took them a couple of years and, finally, in 2017 the planting started,” Kaimana noted. “They work together with another local company to map out a plan for a full biodiverse reforestation program, which includes seven native species.”
Since 2017, the company has planted 17,500 trees, including koa and Iliahi (Hawaiian Sandalwood) trees.
“It’s become a passion project for them. That’s where they want to be – away from people and in the forest,” Kaimana said with a laugh.
With Joe and Kristen ready to retire and looking to focus solely on their replanting project, their sons are preparing to take over day-to-day operations in the next five years.
“They’ll never be able to stop coming in, but that’s definitely the plan,” Kaimana said.
My two brothers and I are taking on bigger roles and beginning the transition from the first generation to the next.”
While a new generation of Souzas is taking over, the company’s values will stay the same.
“We want to continue to perfect the nuances that come with manufacturing an acoustic instrument,” Kaimana said. “As much as we love aloha and spreading music, we’re still trying to build a professional and extremely high-quality instrument.” MI