Issue 15 T.O.C. – Aaron Keim – “Hawaiian ‘Ukulele Making”

This post is part of a blog series revealing the table of contents of upcoming Issue Fifteen. As is our custom, we’ll be discussing one article per weekday in order to give you a taste of what is to come. 

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Aaron Keim – “Hawaiian ‘Ukulele Making”

The ‘ukulele is as quintessentially Hawaiian (and globally recognizable) as an Aloha shirt or surfboard. The music it makes evoke the beauty and culture of the islands, but its origins are complex. It is a story of blending trades and cultures across vast expanses of ocean. And yet, all those influences harmonize perfectly in this little stringed instrument.

Author, ‘ukulele maker, and 2022 M&T Craft Grant Recipient Aaron Keim traveled to Hawaii in search of the roots of his beloved “uke.” The opportunity for this research, he says, lets him pay tribute to those makers whose work many years ago make his livelihood possible today. Embarking on an arduous journey from Madeira, an island off the Portuguese coast, to the Pacific in the late 19th century, three skilled artisans sought a better life as cabinetmakers in Hawaii. Their skill, ingenuity, and creativity led to the instrument we recognize today as the ‘ukulele. 

In examining period examples of the instrument, Keim saw all the hallmarks of pre-industrial work: sawmill marks, fore-plane tracks, and rough secondary surfaces. He also found a pragmatic use of woods, from native koa to imported Douglas fir, and a variety of forms and accents from the different makers. Gathering this information, Keim set out to make an ‘ukulele in the same way as those original makers would have done it – and found that putting himself in their shoes “was an incredible exercise in imagination, empathy, humility, and respect.”

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