About Me

A slightly over-educated sailor sharing the wet and dry sides of his life.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Shipped Out Aboard the Matson Containership S.S. Kauai: Ukuleles in Hawaii!!!


Many apologies to those who died of boredom since the last time I posted on this blog.  I spent a couple months more ashore than I ever intended.  I left the President Truman in November and finally got a ship at the end of May.  Somewhere in there, my shipping card burned, forcing me to re-register for a second time.  Six months is way too long to be out of work. 


By some miracle, I managed to finally score a Matson job.  I’m now sailing aboard the Matson containership, the S.S. Kauai.  This is a very mellow gig.  We do this two-week route, going from Seattle to Oakland to Honolulu and back to Seattle.  Seattle arrival at the dock is normally around 0200 Saturday morning, with departure about 22 hour later.  Oakland is the following Monday around 5:00 pm, with departure about 23 hours later.  Honolulu is about the same time the following Saturday, with departure about 24 hours later. 


It is kind of crappy to arrive home at that hour in Seattle.  However, seeing Margaret and getting to sleep in my own bed every two weeks is a nice thing.  Saturday pretty much gets swallowed up with errands, but I can imagine worse.  How about getting stuck on the ship and staring across the water at Elizabeth, New Jersey?  Nothing against the fine people of New Jersey, but there’s no place like home.  After all, the West Coast is my home.  Moreover, I get to say hello to the cats and the hens, too!


So what of Hawaii?  Not much time to do much, but at least I remember how to get around from when I lived there between 1971 and 1975.  Still, Hawaii means a lot more to me than having lived there.  On one side, as a child, I was able to discover the joys of Japanese cuisine.  That stuff is everywhere, though deeply blended into the local cuisine.  On the other side, there is my current obsession with the ukulele. 


Yeah, yeah, I was supposed to post a video or an audio clip of me doing something on the ukulele.  Sorry that didn’t happen.  I’m still hashing out audio quality issues.  It would appear that webcams suck wind and rock when it comes to rendering sound.  I could barely give a damn about the video, but it’s the sound quality that sorely lacks.  That project is hereby on standby.


Anyway, I’ve been in contact with the head luthier of KoAloha Ukuleles, Paul Okami.  Heck of a nice guy!  We’ve been trying to figure out how to arrange for a tour of his family’s factory, where my first ukulele was built.  Sadly, July has been a busy time for the Okamis.  Actually, it more that the ship’s timing has been on the busiest Sundays for them.  The good thing is that they’re having fun.  So the S.S. Kauai manages to arrive on the 4th of July.  Two weeks later, it happens that it’s the Hawaii Ukulele Festival.  Of course, I will make that.  A long ride on a bike, but it sure beats the cost of a cab ride there.  As you can see, July is “chock-a-block” for everyone.  Busy fun.


So why have I been talking with Paul?  Well, I hate to admit it, but I really want one of KoAloha’s tenor ukuleles.  Without having played them, it’s a toss up between the 4-string tenor and the 6-string “D-VI” tenor.  The latter uke is strung and tuned similar to a guitar, though built on a tenor ukulele with a solid koa wood body.  The idea is that you get the ukulele sound with guitar chords and such.  However, the 4-string does present a quite different world of advantage.  There are whole messes of jazz chords that are rather difficult on a guitar (for someone like me) but much simpler on the ukulele.  Plus, The Girl From Ipanema sounds way better on a uke than a steel-string guitar:  Small, intimate, and plaintive. 


Meanwhile, I discovered that, while the kiosk at Ala Moana Mall, where I bought my soprano ukulele back in Y2K, is long-since gone, The Hawaiian Ukulele Company was the parent business.  This I found out on my first trip to the Aloha Tower Mall.  After looking for the closest KoAloha ukulele dealer to the ship, HUC turned up.  After my first purchase of some music books, the proprietor, Mamiko Nelson, handed me a business card.  When I looked at the layout with the icons and dingbats, I mentally flashed back to the original business card that still resides in my soprano uke case from ten years ago.  Everything was the same, except for the business name:  The Ala Moana Ukulele Company versus The Hawaiian Ukulele Company.  So I had to ask.  Mamiko was surprised that I made the connection:  One in the same.  We were both pleased--as if long lost friend found each other.


Now I’m starting to see a two-way convergence:  I’ve been thinking that my soprano really needs the string action lowered a bit.  At the same time, I really want a KoAloha tenor uke:  Big time.  As far as I can tell, the time is now.  This last Sunday, I tuck my “Little Flea” into my back pack and ride my bike to The Hawaiian Ukulele Company.  Now this turns into something bigger than Mamiko and I ever envisioned. 


Ever since I first bought that soprano uke, I’ve been amazed by its tone.  We’re talking about this little, tiny sound that manages to project with amazing clarity and brightness with ten year old generic strings.  And this “little flea” was built within the first five or six years of the company’s existence—well before they became tied for the top ukulele builder in Hawaii.  The sound is so uncanny that Mamiko kept picking up my uke to play and investigate. 


What she told me is that, though I paid $365.00 back in December 2000, she feels that it’s now worth around $900.00!!!  To cut to the chase, my uke is 100% solid Hawaiian koa wood.  The front, back, and sides are all individual one-piece sections of wood.  The front and back look to be cut from the same slice of wood.  The neck and fret board are both koa wood.  Also, the depth of the sound box (the body) is slightly deeper than the current, equivalent models. 


There are other nuances, but, when it all comes down to it, I really feel that my soprano was the best soprano in the shop that day.  The ukulele sounded so good, Mamiko felt that I shouldn’t even change those old strings.  Weird, no?  Actually, not:  By instinct—despite the difficulty I have with cramming my fingers between those frets—I tend to grab that instrument first when I feel the impulse to play music.  Even Margaret feels the same impulse to pick up that little flea.  She’s actually considering taking lessons.  You might sing at a whisper, but that uke will give you all the support you need.  No more and no less.  I feel so privileged that I do own something so sweetly accommodating.  It might be a perfect musical instrument.  In class with a Stradivarius?  No.  Among ukuleles:  Yes! 


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