Nourishing the soul with the sound of Aloha

Joe Souza, Master Luthier & Co-owner of Kanile’a ‘Ukulele, Kaneohe, Oahu, Hawaii

Feature | Oahu, Hawaii | 11 April 2022
Although Joe started his working life as a Firefighter in Honolulu, his passion for the ukulele was sparked in fourth grade. His teacher at the time, his maternal Aunt, sat him in front of the class and proceeded to teach him the ukulele. This fascinated him and led to a life-long pursuit of becoming a master luthier. ILO Photo/ Kevin Cassidy
“You know, the journey for the ukulele starts in the forest,” says Joe Souza, master luthier and co-owner of Kanile’a ‘Ukulele, a factory that specializes in making ukuleles on Hawaii’s Oahu Island. “And in our case, we use koa wood which is an indigenous hardwood.”

The koa tree, whose name in the Hawaiian language means "brave" or "bold", is very much valued and honoured in Hawaiian heritage. Its prized wood is famous for having deep rich colours and unique grain patterns, and is used for musical instruments such as ukuleles and guitars.

“We only use dead and fallen koa trees to build these playable masterpieces,” Souza clarifies. “So the life of this koa tree, now lives in our instrument and spreads aloha throughout the world,” he adds as he begins to strum his lustrous reddish-gold ukulele and sings a melodic Hawaiian tune.

Souza runs the factory along with his wife Kristen who is also co-owner of the business and his three sons Kaimana, Iokepa and Kahiau. “My wife Kristen is truly the backbone of our company and handles a lot of the finance and logistics area of the business. And each of my sons bring their own expertise to the company based on their passions and interests,” Joe states. “There has never been any pressure put on them to join the company, it’s definitely by choice and they love what they do.”
The Kanile’a ‘Ukulele factory uses sustainable harvesting techniques for the brilliant golden to reddish-brown koa wood in making their ukuleles. The intricate woodworking with incredible symbolic inlays makes each instrument a one-of-kind masterpiece. ILO Photo/ Kevin Cassidy

As a kid growing up in Hawaii Joe wanted to be a firefighter. During his time as a firefighter he discovered his passion for music and the ukulele. “When I was in the fourth grade, I wanted to become a firefighter, and I also developed a passion for playing the ukulele at the same time from my music teacher who actually happened to be my mom’s twin sister,” he reveals with a chuckle.

“I grew up and actually became a firefighter with the Honolulu Fire Department, and I began building ukuleles part time. Eventually I retired from the fire department and became a full time ukulele builder and we’ve had this business now for 24 years.”

In speaking about through the detail process of how the instrument is built from start to finish at the Kanile’a ‘Ukulele factory, Joe points out that technology plays an essential part in creating his ukuleles. “We employ CNC technology to achieve accuracy in terms of the tone, sound, and playability of the instrument. And in our finishing, we rely on ultraviolet light for curing, which is a modern way of finishing a musical instrument, instead of curing through evaporation,” he says as we tour the finishing department.

While the stringed instrument is affiliated with being Hawaiian and having a distinct Hawaiian sound, its roots lie in the Portuguese Braguinha. This ancestor of the ukulele as brought to Hawaii in the late 19th Century by Portuguese immigrants. Today, the distinct sounds of the Hawaiian ukulele can be heard and enjoyed all over the world.

This expertly crafted fretboard with inlay mother of pearl and other semi-precious stones tells a story that came to Joe in a dream. It depicts how the Polynesians following fish and the stars, inhabited the islands that they found in the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. ILO Photo/ John Isaac
“Our instrument literally ships all over the world from our little rock here in the middle of the Pacific Ocean” Souza proudly shares. “We ship to Japan, China, Korea, the US, UK and all over Europe where the ukulele is just booming!” he exclaims as he quickly plays the instrument in his hand and breaks into a brief song. His passion and aloha spirit emanate.

Running a business Joe says is not easy and certainly comes with its challenges. However, he underscores the importance of being able to provide jobs, spreading aloha and having a sustainability component to the business.

“Apart from spreading aloha around the world, we provide jobs and a source of income to local Hawaiians. Employing people of the land and giving them opportunities to not just survive, but to thrive is extremely important to me and has been part of my vision. We pride ourselves on who we are, what we do, and what we provide.”

“Work to me has always been about doing good,” Souza says of what work means to him. “As a firefighter I wanted to do good and now here in this company we want to employ people and inspire people all over with our musical instrument and bring them much joy, happiness and good health by playing their woes away and nourishing their souls.”

For every ukulele built out of koa wood a koa tree is planted as part of the company’s aim to maintain environmentally friendly practices, while honouring their Hawaiian culture. Love of the land known as Aloha ʻĀina is a very important principle in Hawaiian culture.

“We provide so much aloha through our business and instrument, but we also remember how important the land is to us. It’s not something we just say but it’s something we do,” Joe says as he clears his throat and gets in position to play another enchanting melody.