Strings of Yesteryear

Collector Shawn Yacavone's audio archive captures the sound of history's coolest `ukulele
Story by Jackie Young. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

Yacavone says his fascination with Hawai‘i’s homegrown stringed instrument began when he was a college student living in Japan and needed a taste of the Islands: “The sound of an ‘ukulele just brings me back to my childhood,” says the now 41-year-old Kaimukī resident. Yacavone started collecting seriously in 2000, when he stumbled upon a Martin 1-M at a pawn-shop in ‘Ewa Beach for $600. “It was the most beautiful instrument,” he recalls. “It sounded amazing and of course I knew the brand, so I immediately went for it. I’ve never stopped.”

Since then about five hundred rare and vintage ‘ukulele have passed through his hands, but being a married father of two young daughters, Yacavone can afford to keep “only” about seventy. Novelty ‘ukulele, such as the 1940s Kamaka cigar box, can run around $3,000, and a truly rare ‘ukulele, such as an 1880s José do Espírito Santo soprano, can cost about $12,000. Though he’d prefer to keep every ‘ukulele he’s fortunate to encounter, Yacavone feels he’s contributing to the larger project of their preservation by helping restore, sell or return to circulation the rare pieces that come his way. And for those who don’t have the scratch to own one, Yacavone has created another way to experience these exceptional ‘ukes.

The ‘ukulele friends: (Left to right) Sam Fong, Shawn Yacavone, Imua Garza and Eun Ho Lee in Fong’s Kāne‘ohe studio. Their project Ukulele Friend started last year to compare the sounds of various ‘ukulele. “We decided we’d have to record the same song, at the same distance from the microphone,” says Yacavone, “so that’s what you hear now on all the videos.”

In 2006 Yacavone started an online business, Ukulele Friend, to create a network for collectors. To the free, educational portion of the web site, he’s added high-def video recordings of rare and historical ‘ukulele. “Recording these instruments in the studio really brings all of us back to an earlier time,” says Yacavone. “They have so much personality and are a true pleasure to capture. Just hearing them takes me back to the days of Kalākaua.”

Yacavone recruited friends from church to assist in the recording: Sam Fong as audio engineer and Eun Ho Lum as videographer and post-production manager. They tapped Imua Garza—formerly lead vocalist and ‘ukulele whiz for the local Jawaiian group Opihi Pickers—to play; so far Garza’s strummed about sixty dif-ferent instruments for the archive. Garza plays the same series of scales at the beginning of each video for the sake of comparison, then launches into a brief excerpt from an Island ‘ukulele tune.

It’s a dream gig for any ‘ukulele player. “It’s like being a surfer and getting to ride Duke Kahanamoku’s surfboard. Or like listening to ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and being in Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s room when he recorded it,” says Garza. “I was honored to have the experience to play so many historical instruments; I didn’t want to let some of them go! I’ve been playing ‘ukulele for most of my life, but being able to play on some of the first ‘ukulele ever built? It’s a history that I’d never experienced until this project.”

Among the ‘ukulele represented are several “tremendously significant pieces,” says Yacavone, such as a 1920s Kumalae soprano, a 1920s Royal Hawaiian soprano, a 1930s Washburn concert, a 1950s Martin concert and a 1951 Gibson ETU-1 tenor (one of only eighty-eight ever made by Gibson with steel strings and electronics). “Each one has its own history, personality and unique tone,” says Yacavone. “Our job is to capture the true essence of each one, with as few changes to the original sound of the instrument as possible.”

Yacavone hopes viewers will come away with the appreciation that “‘ukulele are a part of the history and culture of Hawai‘i, and this is a wonderful way to experience Hawai‘i’s history in a greater dimension. It’s one thing to see these rare instruments, but being able to also hear them provides an experience that is totally unique.” HH