Not many people are lucky enough to have one Moore Bettah Ukulele. But (and don’t hold it against me) now I have two!
And, best of all, my second is an ukulele as delightful and seemingly “made just for me” as Number One. And the acquisition was just as serendipitous.
Here’s how the stars aligned:
Mark and I travel to Hawaii once every year or so. Usually in November. Last year we brought my Moore Bettah Ukulele back to Chuck and Bonnie for a one-year checkup. Well, that was the reason I gave, but a checkup wasn’t really a requirement. A nice time relaxing with friends in the best part of Hawaii was the reason.
So why not do it again this year?
Okay! Let’s burn through some of those Hawaiian Airlines miles we’ve been accumulating with this year’s purchases and go see Chuck and Bonnie and absorb all the goodness and relaxation (and mosquitoes) that Opihikao has to offer…
This year’s trip began with a quick stop on Oahu for two days. I had a hula lesson (read about it here) with Kanoelehua Miller, who started Hula Studio, a digital magazine for those who enjoy hula and/or want to learn more about it. The ukulele take-away here is that the dance Kanoe taught me is a hapa haole song from 1936 by Johnny Noble, “Pretty Red Hibiscus.” It’s important for you to remember that part.
On a Tuesday morning, we left Honolulu for Hilo. A quick lunch at Café 100 (oh, I love Loco Moco and theirs is one of my new favorites now) and then a stop at the KTA for food.
By the time we reach Pahoa, we’ve decided we didn’t buy enough water, so we stop at the market there, too. Chuck calls, asking if we’re close. Hearing we’re in Pahoa at the grocery store, he asks us to pick up a packet of stamps so he can send out some new string combos he’s having people “test.”
Okay then: Water. Stamps. We got ‘em.
Before checking in at our cottage around the corner from Chuck and Bonnie’s place, we drop by to see them. Koa greets us with loud barking and Bonnie isn’t far behind—her hugs and sunny smile erasing every travel discomfort from the past few days. We’re here. Did you hear my sigh?
Sips from icy lilikoi lemonade refresh us even more as the four of us catch up on things. “Want to see what’s happening in the shop?” Chuck eventually asks as we sit outside in Chuck and Bonnie’s kitchen and dining area that’s suspended in the leafy crotch of a mango tree.
How could we not?
On a workroom shelf are two ukulele cases. Both are latched closed, the lids hiding the secret goodness inside. The annual exhibition of the Ukulele Guild of Hawai’i is just a couple of weeks away and, as he opens the first ukulele case, Chuck tells us he has a special project or two he’ll be unveiling there.
You’ve heard of the phrase, “My jaw dropped.” Right. But have you ever really seen it happen? If you’d been in Chuck’s workshop that day, you would have observed it. Twice.
Mark and I are speechless as Chuck lifts out the ukulele masterpiece he’s calling “Wailelele, The Waterfall.” Bonnie stands aside, her smile lighting up the room as she watches Chuck gently caress the inlaid marvel.
An island beauty (on the headstock) cups a trickle of water in her palm and it splashes down, tumbling into a waterfall which passes by a jungle of Hawaiian plants lining the neck before ending its journey in a tranquil pool (down where the neck of the instrument meets the body), where another lovely lady bathes, the waterfall cascading over her head. And every detail is inlay, from each splash and bubble to every green leaf and pebble.
Umm…did I mention that this is not only a scene recalling Gauguin’s best but is also an eminently playable instrument? It sounds amazing.
We are astounded. No other word for it. Mark asks to hold it and Chuck obliges, a bit reluctantly, like a mom with a precious newborn. Totally understandable.
The next case holds another ukulele that, if we hadn’t seen Waterfall first, would have also been jaw-dropping. But our jaws had already been dislocated with the first one…
This one, “The Lo’I” isn’t as ornate as “The Waterfall,” but the inlay work is equally artistic and detailed. And it sounds equally as good.
Chuck gently latches both cases down again then nods towards the other room in his shop, the place where I’ve seen “finished” ukuleles in the past. We walk in. Four ukuleles line the wall. One is a repair (Ouch! That really happened in an overhead compartment while the uke was in a Reunion Blues bag??? Maybe it’s time to switch out my own RB travel case for the Chuck-recommended Oahu case) and three are finished and displayed simply, just waiting to be held.
So I hold—and strum—them all!
There’s a milo and bearclaw spruce with a golden headstock and two with slotted headstocks, both koa.
“Are any of these for sale?” I ask Chuck. He waffles a bit. “Might be….might be sending one off to Andrew (of TheUkuleleSite.com) for an auction.”
And that’s it. But that’s how it is buying an non-commissioned ukulele from Chuck. There’s a lot of luck involved, some translating the meaning of what’s being said and then some waiting. All the time, of course, while I’m thinking, “Could I really have another ukulele from Chuck? Do I deserve it?” and, finally, “Ummm…can the budget—and my husband—get behind such a purchase?”
Talking to Chuck the next afternoon at the Warm Pond (ahhh, yes, the Warm Pond; I smile just remembering the relaxing water that’s not too warm and not too cold—and the little fish that nibble at your toes), he shares that the milo/spruce was sent off to Oahu that morning, destined for an auction at Andrew’s place.
The next morning we enjoy breakfast with Chuck and Bonnie (I share a hula with them after a great breakfast which included Chuck’s seasoned eggs and Bonnie’s delicious no-oil banana nut muffins). Chuck wanders out to the shop and I peek in to find him wrapping the final bit of packing tape around a very-ukulele-shaped box.
“This one is heading off to England,” Chuck says.
That’s two down.
I peek around the corner to the “for sale” wall and there’s the repair ukulele and one other. When I see which one it is, I sigh happily.
My favorite is still waiting there, its richly-ribboned koa glimmering in the light. An unfolded red hibiscus angles across the headstock. Red purfling is set off by the ebony fretboard; the fretboard markers are a red-dyed maple burl. And, even under my untalented fingers, this ukulele sings the sweetest sound—rich in the promise of opening up even more in years hence, yet already so full that the lightest strum rolls the sound around me like gentle thunder.
And I smile when I think of my dad, who died in 2013. He and Mom had spent their early married life on Oahu pre-statehood. The two always had a strong connection to Hawai’i (Dad wanted to call me “Leilani” but Mom thought, living on the Mainland, that in high school the boys might joke about the name, as in “Let’s go…’fill in the name’” so she forbade him from naming me that). Dad was an unconventional soul and enjoyed tucking a red hibiscus behind his ear whenever they were in Hawai’i or at a Hawaiian-themed event. And he really enjoyed the smiles he received when he wore that red hibiscus. Over the years, I’d given him several gifts featuring a red hibiscus.
But this red hibiscus ukulele isn’t mine. Not yet at least.
“Is this one available?” I ask, tapping its golden body softly.
“Not sure. Might be,” Chuck answers cryptically.
Sigh… There’s only one day left before we leave. I’ve checked the budget—and with hubby—and all is a “go” for this purchase. But it’s not clear whether it’s for sale or not. It’s up to Chuck.
We clean up the cottage, pack our bags and bid a sweet aloha to our little Hawaiian hideaway the next afternoon. Once again we drive through Chuck and Bonnie’s gate, but this time Koa recognizes the car and we’re greeted by a wagging tail, no barks.
It’s a flurry of hugs and thanks and promises to visit again and stay in touch over email. I look wistfully over at the shop.
“Do you think there’s an ukulele that’s for sale?” I ask Chuck one last time.
“Well, you know, I think there just might be one there waiting for you,” he smiles.
And there is. And it’s my favorite. And Chuck knew that all along…
Follow up: Mark’s been learning to play a bit of ukulele lately and here’s my wishful plan: On our next visit to Opihikao, he’ll strum the chords to “My Pretty Red Hibiscus” on my own Moore Bettah red hibiscus ukulele while I dance the song back to Chuck and Bonnie. And as the music floats around the mango tree, I’ll be thinking of Dad and of love and of dreams that come true.