Souza, Joe

Mea Nīnauele: Camille Naluai


Made In Hawaii 
Talking Story with Joe Souza

Joe Souza putting the finishing touches on an ‘ukulele. His company, Kanile‘a, is operated in He‘eia, Hawai‘i on the island of O‘ahu.

Joe Souza makes ‘ukulele when he's not at his other job working as a Honolulu fire fighter. His small company produces about 25 ‘ukulele a month. A small number, says Souza, considering larger manufacturers generate anywhere between 200-300 ‘ukulele in the same time period. Despite the low quantity Kanile‘a is doing well and has attracted the attention of Peter Moon, one of Hawai‘i's legendary musicians. The following interview was conducted at Souza's home/workshop.

Joe: My love for the ‘ukulele is just one facet of how I love to keep tradition with Hawaiian music and me being very particular to a lot songs, totally knowing the song, trying to put myself where the composer was when they were trying to express their feelings through words, wanting to express that feeling when they are singing their songs or mele and expressing their feelings through myself. That’s how I feel. Only through song research and really putting myself in the mood that they were in; that’s when I feel that I’ve accomplished anything.

Camille: Can you tell me about Kanile‘a and how it was started?

Joe: Interestingly enough I was already building ‘ukulele under Ho‘okani and started Kanile‘a to gain my own identity as a builder. Prior to that, I worked under the person who I learned from and built ‘ukulele with him hand-in-hand.

Camille: What was his name?

Joe: Peter Bermetus. Peter has played a very important hand with me becoming a luthier, or instrument builder. Inevitably, starting Kanile‘a and at that point I was experimenting with different tonal woods besides koa. I was using spruce, western red cedar, California walnut, Oregon merdel other tonal woods that are commonly found in guitars but never were really found on ‘ukulele.

Camille: Can you explain a little bit about tonal wood?

Joe: In the world of tonal wood generally speaking the softer wood is not good whereas the harder wood is. For the back and sides of the ‘ukulele a hard wood suits its purpose well whereas with the sound board or the front you would want something that is a little softer and has elasticity allowing the instrument to resonate but still has lateral strength so it can handle the string tensions and all of the playing and stresses that come with strumming an instrument. spruce, western red cedar, sequoia redwood, those woods, tonally, are ideal for the front. Koa, rosewWood, mahogany and other tonal woods would be better in the back. Combo-ing the two to design and build an instrument that has superior tonal; which inevitably you want it’s the sound of the instrument, not so much the look but the sound.

Camille: Were you raised with Hawaiians, people who lived a Hawaiian way of life?

Joe: Yeah, in true Hawaiian tradition I was hanaied by my grandfather who was fluent in Hawaiian. He was from Moloka‘i. I grew up with him until I was 9-years-old. I was surrounded by language and culture. Once he passed on I went to live with my mom and dad. Of course my mom and dad were both very involved with Hawaiian culture. Both were in Hawaiian Civic Club, ‘Ahahui Māmakakaua and other facets in their lives. So, from very young to now I have a love for Hawaiiana, from working with the lo‘i and kalo to music. The two extremes from work and play, I love both.

Camille: Out of all the things how come you chose ‘ukulele making?

Joe: I guess; for expression music was so important. The ‘ukulele was the first thing that was really introduced melodically to the Hawaiians. Prior to that, it was a lot of percussion. (note: Native Hawaiians did have nose flutes that were played to accompany chants and oli.) Here was a melodic instrument that allowed them to convert chant and history with music and carry on this history through music and be able to sing it. I thought the ‘ukulele was so important because traditionally the first thing that you would think about when you think of Hawai‘i is music. The biggest impression that visitors would have when they left the islands would be music, next to pineapple. To learn the old ways or how traditionally music was shared; which was by word of mouth. There were very few written words on a lot of the traditional songs; it was passed on through word of mouth. It wasn’t documented as well as it is today. In some ways it’s almost lost. There are hidden verses. Verses that weren’t as popular to entertainers so through the years those verses may have gotten lost. Fortunately enough through either family or close associations these verses were still there. It was just a matter of documenting them and doing research on them.

Camille: Have you ever come across a lost document?

Joe: Yeah, I had a hand written version, from my grandmother, of Kalama‘ula. Her grandparents were first time residents of Kalama‘ula. So, of course it was important to them. The song Kalama‘ula, and all of the meanings which were originally from a chant that was eventually made into a mele and introduced on the grand opening on this auspicious opening of Hawaiian Home Lands. The first Hawaiian Homestead being established was at Kalama‘ula. These words that she had written were all the hidden verses and the true words of the song which was a bonus. That was really, really fortunate to find them because two of the verses I had never heard of. It was incredible to find, in my grandmothers handwritten notes the words of Kalama‘ula.

Camille: Tell me about the quality of the ‘ukuleles that you make and the quantity verses the quality of the instrument?

Joe: As a company we constantly address quality control and I believe that is foremost cause every ‘ukulele has my name on it. I would not want an instrument that didn’t pass through me, as a player and as a builder, to actually become marketable. Quality is number one. Of course, under quality there are a lot of things that fall under it; tone, playability, looks, and price. Besides being a custom builder we are the most affordable builder on the market. Any instrument locally built generally speaking has a pretty hefty price tag because of course cost of living in Hawai‘i is not cheap. We try to keep our price as fair as possible. It all falls under, as far as I believe, under quality and having an instrument that is very marketable and very fairly priced that looks nice, playable and that sounds awesome.

Camille: Is there a huge Japanese market and what about your use of all locally made products?

Joe: For myself and our shop we build everything in the shop. Everything besides the tuning keys and the front wire is actually built in our shop. We build the necks from rough lumber, we cut our own bodies, we do everything ourselves all the way from cutting the logs to the finished work. In comparison to other companies who have parts of their instruments introduced from other places like California, Mexico, and China, we build everything. I believe that is a very important factor because you say that its coming from Hawai‘i and made in Hawai‘i that means that it is built in Hawai‘i and to have it built in Hawai‘i by Hawaiians, nothing could be more true and pure to have an instrument built in a traditional style from Hawai‘i by a Hawai‘i.

Camille: And you are Portuguese too right? So you’ve got the blood on both sides.

Joe: I’m Portuguese yeah. Fortunately enough I’m a Souza and actually being a lot closer to my Hawaiian heritage we get both, their Portuguese who introduced the instrument as braguinha or machete de braga which is still very popular now in Portugal, evolving now into the ‘ukulele which is our modern day marvel and so familiar across the whole world. Everyone knows an ‘ukulele.

Camille: What do you hope to accomplish in the end with your business. Of course being able to support yourself and keep the business going but in terms of maintaining a cultural awareness, do have any desire to have everyone in the whole world know about Hawaiiana?

Joe: One thing I address with every instrument whether it is staying here locally or if it's going to Japan or to the mainland or wherever it may end up. It’s made in Hawai‘i. We also provide Hawaiian music for them because to have Hawaiian music played in Nova Skotia or to have it played in Sweden; where some of our instruments have gone, that is amazing. That is spreading aloha. That is spreading love through music all over the world and that is my goal. To provide an instrument to somebody and have them play it is an incredible feeling. When I see one of my ‘ukulele being played and bust up that means I accomplished something. That means the player loves their instrument. They love to play it. That's all I could ask for. To have one of my ‘ukulele hang on a mantle and be a show piece, that's not my goal. My goal is to have the individual player play the instrument and love it.