Issue 12.5: October/November 2009

The Duke of 'Ukes


story by Catharine Lo
photo by Natalya Madolora

Sonny Dahlin might be the best uke maker you’ve never heard of. On most days you’ll find him in his workshop on the second floor of a moss-green, cinder-block walk-up in Waipahu, home to Sonny D. Ukuleles since 1969. In this inconspicuous three-room space, the 66-year-old musician and master craftsman labors six days a week to assemble his highly sought-after instruments by hand, the way he has for forty years.

A handsome row of custom ‘ukulele hangs just past the workshop’s entry. They all have jumbo sound holes, a trademark of Sonny D.’s that, like Ovation guitars, make them positively boomy for their size. Dahlin flips them over to show the grain of the various woods, polished to a high sheen by his son, Duane. It’s Sonny’s proficiency in using the world’s most exotic woods that separates his ukes from most others. Koa, milo, mahogany, rosewood, walnut, kamani, birch, mango—“and sometimes I even cut the tree on my own,” he says.

He picks up a milky-colored piece with an unusual pattern of dime-size whorls. “This one—this is bird’s eye maple. This piece of wood cost $450.” With silent satisfaction he admires the pristine ‘ukulele that will soon meet the fingers of local impresario Rogie Caliente.

Beautiful though his instruments are, it’s not so much the look he’s concerned with; it’s the sound. Sonny plays every instrument he makes, and he’s been known to toss duds off the balcony. “If it’s not good for me, it’s not good for anyone,” he insists.

When he’s not throwing them away, he’s donating them—to prisons, fundraisers, at-risk youths—because he believes music gives people a purpose. “I’m a giver. Without my wife I’d go broke,” he says, grateful for Aggy, who manages the business. He needn’t worry. Many of Hawaii’s greatest players—Israel Kamakawiwoole, Herb Ohta and Moe Keale, to name a few—have kept Sonny’s hands from idling, and the orders keep on coming.

“You don’t find them in music stores,” says the Kaau Crater Boys’ ukulele wiz Troy Fernandez, whose Sonny D. black koa uke has been dear to his heart for twenty years. He suggests that Sonny’s quiet generosity manifests in his instruments. “Sonny has a big heart. Everything he has, he gives it away. What Uncle Sonny does is priceless.”