Keli’i Ukulele and Why We No Longer Sell Them

A year or two back I wrote a blog titled “The Truth about Kanilea”. It was just a grabbing title because the conclusion of the review was that they were a great company. Which is what most of my blogs are about. I rave about what I like and try to refrain from negativity. I fear the day that I decide it’s ok to rant about whatever I feel like. Private conversation is one thing but it’s just not cool to degrade what others may love as if your opinion was better. You will hopefully never see a blog from me where I bash some maker for setting their necks wrong or doing horrid fret jobs or anything to that sort. In fact, it’s literally made me ill to have to write this. Sick in my stomach. But I feel obligated to explain why TheUkuleleSite  no longer carries Keli’i ukulele.

In 2012 we sold more Keli’i (kay-lee-ee) ukuleles than any other K brand. People visit our store up on the North Shore and want a “ukulele made in Hawaii”. They aren’t sure how much these cost. “$100 maybe,  300?  I guess that’s not too bad…”

And that’s why Keli’i sold so well. Starting around 300 they were a Hawaiian instrument many could afford.  They sound good, nice solid woods, and they sell every day. So, why would I drop our best seller? Seems like a bad business move. Well… I’m not crazy, but it feels like I have no choice.

A few years ago Kanile’a was such an amazing deal, they’re still a really great value, but they had to raise prices, considerably. At the same time, Kamaka jumped $100-$200 a model. For a while KoAloha cost less, but they have also recently raised prices. So what’s the deal? Have these companies gotten so popular and now they’ve decided to cash in on it?

Not quite… Running a business in Hawaii is expensive.  A worker getting a measly 9 bucks an hour actually cost an employer over $14 after taxes, insurance and medical.  (Hawaii is the only state that requires you to provide medical to employees who work over 20 hours)  Paying professional skilled workers enough to support their family requires quite a commitment and investment.  Add to that, rent and all the other expenses and you see the diligence required. But all that hard work doesn’t insure you will be profitable. So many ukulele companies have come and gone. Most successful uke makers here on the island help sustain their Hawaiian business with an import line. Buying and selling a box of ukes is quite a different experience from building eight ukes and putting them in a box. Kamaka is the only main Hawaiian brand without an import line. I guess because they have been building Hawaiian ukes for 100 years they must be rollin’ in the money. Let me just say this, Casey Kamaka is a world class builder from this legendary company and family, yet he has kept his job as a pilot to get benefits and eventually retirement. He builds all the Jake models so he gets like what, 6 grand each time. The sad part is to get 6 times as much for your ukulele you have to work 5 times longer with twice as much focus. My heart is still with building. I wish I could just go back to it. But it’s a hard road. Kent Carlos Everette, a great guitar builder made a joke, I think was, “How do you get a million dollars building guitars?….Start with two million!”

So with that said, I recently have learned that Keli’i is now building their bodies and necks in China. They are assembled and finished here in Hawaii. Because over 50% of the labor cost is in Hawaii, Keli’i can legally call them “Made in Hawaii”.

I did not write this to start controversy. I like Keli’i ukes. I also know that they were previously being made in Hawaii because I have been to the shop. But they can’t sustain their pricing being 100% made in Hawaii.  No one can. We have written many things about Keli’i being Hawaiian and “the best value in a Hawaiian uke”, so I felt it necessary to state what I learned. The truth.  Which is totally fine. They are actually still a good deal. Wonderful ukes made with real solid Hawaiian Koa. But the truth is the truth, and it is not fair to other Hawaiian builders or the market perspective.

We will lose sales by not having anything “Hawaiian and affordable”. But if we can’t make affordable ukes in Hawaii, then we can’t.  There are many great ukes made affordable where things are able to be made affordably.

I have customers to care for and also a family to nourish. I’m not going to discuss this further. At least not publicly and hopefully not in any other way. If you bought a Keli’i ukulele in the last few months from us and you are bothered by the possibility of partial overseas construction,  you can return it for store credit. Or you can play it and enjoy a great ukulele made by human craftsman.  If a China man cuts his finger on a band saw, does he not bleed? lol … Aloha to my friends in uke world. Next time I promise more enjoyable topics will be covered.  Until next time.