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Island Icon: The Aloha Spirit

Joe Souza makes ukeleles in Hawaii and is an island icon.

April 21, 2020
Joe Souza ukuleles
Joe Souza builds his ukuleles from koa wood. Courtesy Joe and Kkaimana Souza

He’s known as the “wood whisperer.” After nearly 30 years of making ukuleles on Oahu, luthier Joe Souza knows how to read the grain of each piece of native koa wood he selects for his instruments to produce kanile`a—the “joyful sound” for which he named his company, Kanile`a `Ukulele.

Joe Souza ukuleles
Every time he sells an instrument, he contributes to planting a new koa tree. Courtesy Joe and Kkaimana Souza

The fireman-turned- instrument-maker serves as a prominent steward for the cultural and natural heritage of the ukulele. When his family migrated to Hawaii from Portugal around 140 years ago, they brought with them a machete de braga, the ukulele’s musical precursor. “My ancestors’ spirit and love of the instrument are still alive through the songs we share at family gatherings to this day,” he says.

Soon after launching Kanile`a `Ukulele in 1998, Souza established the nonprofit Reforest Hawaii, pledging to plant a koa tree for every ukulele he sold. He has since planted more than 19,000 trees—and counting. Each customer receives the GPS coordinates of his tree, so he can follow its growth through the years on Google Earth. “We are following old Hawaii words of wisdom: He ali`i ka `āina; he kauā ke kanakak,” Souza says. “That translates as, ‘The land is our chief; man is its servant.’”

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Why is koa wood ideal for ukuleles? It has the brightness of rosewood but [the] mellow tones of mahogany. That translates as an even brighter, happy sound. What do visitors see on tours of your workshop in Kaneohe? They see the whole process of how we build a ukulele, from a koa log through to the placing of the strings. We are the only ukulele-maker on Hawaii who still builds everything here. What inspires your craft? We constantly ask, “How can we inspire the soul with our ukulele?” We are in relentless pursuit of the perfect ukulele.

Joe Souza’s Top Spots on Oahu

Fresh Catch (Kaneohe): The name says it all. Their seared ahi tuna salad is to die for, and they have so many good poke varieties.

Haleiwa Joe’s Seafood Grill (Kaneohe): It has a beautiful backdrop of the Ko‘olau mountains. They serve delicious fish and great prime rib. Get there early, or you’ll be surfing with no turf.

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Kailua Beach: My wife, Kristen, and I grew up in Kailua, so for us, it’s the most beautiful beach on the planet.

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