I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when I first opened the boxes from Hawaiian ukulele makers KoAloha.
Surprised to find mix-and-match tops staring back at me, I squinted, did a double take, and finally took a closer look at KoAloha’s new Naupaka ukes.
The Naupaka bodies are made with two different woods: koa and mango. Throughout. Every piece of koa is joined to a piece of mango—top, sides, and back—yielding an almost harlequin pattern of alternating woods and colors as you rotate the handsome instruments in your hands.
When combined with the glossy finish, the effect is gorgeous—and a little strange at first—but dig deeper, and it’s got a uniquely Hawaiian soul. Now, while folks love novelty in the ukulele world, you can’t say this is a novel (or whimsical) idea. It’s an interesting one, though, created by the brains behind the popular builder from Honolulu, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
For KoAloha luthier Paul Okami, it’s about more than simply showcasing local woods or creating aesthetic value; the Naupaka exists for its unique tone and to celebrate the company’s values in the process. Like many aspects of Hawaiian culture, the new line’s name is steeped in legend. The Naupaka name is drawn from a Hawaiian story about two lovers who were separated, but in KoAloha’s version, they’re reunited in the form of a dual-wood ukulele.
Koa, of course, grows naturally on Hawaii and is the traditional wood used for ukuleles. It’s known for a sound with lots of snap and sparkle. It’s also phenomenally expensive, since the stunning wood is in high demand and only grows in Hawaii. Mango, an import that’s long been grown and harvested on Hawaii, is a sustainably grown hardwood that not only produces delicious fruit, but also makes great ukuleles, with a clear, dulcet tone. It’s lighter-colored than koa, with a grain that’s almost like bleached-out mahogany, with streaks of red and green.
“Being a Hawaiian builder, it was important to carefully consider the wood selection,” Okami writes in an email. “Koa is a native Hawaiian hardwood, and our mango also comes from a local source. Koa is known for its brightness and depth, while the mango adds sweetness to the tone.”
A Special Sound
Strumming these two Naupaka ukes, the KTNP-00 tenor and the KSNP-00 soprano, it’s easy to agree. (KoAloha also offers a concert-sized Naupaka, the KCNP-00.)
Naturally, the different body sizes are going to accentuate different frequencies, but both share a characteristic tone that blends each wood’s strengths—sweet and punchy, with enough volume to prompt more than a few listeners to comment, “Wow, that’s loud!”
Indeed, they do have a big, bold sound, but it’s a really pleasant one that’s easy to control and even easier to enjoy. Some credit KoAloha’s proprietary “unibrace,” which Okami says was designed to add strength to the middle bracing and to speed up production.
Located just behind the “musubi-shaped” soundhole, the unibrace loops around the top, sides, and back. Does it help? Without re-bracing the uke, I can’t say for sure, but these ukes have serious mana—they’re able to go from a whisper to a volcanic blast while remaining balanced and welcoming. Not an easy feat.
The two ukes have a few notable differences, too, beyond their body sizes. The soprano Naupaka has a koa bridge and 12-fret fingerboard (inlaid with mango dots, naturally), while the tenor has an East Indian rosewood bridge and 20-fret fingerboard (with paua shell dots). The tenor’s bridge is also located closer to the middle of the top, which can help drive the tenor’s larger soundboard more efficiently.
The sapele necks are very comfortable, neither too thin nor too thick for my hands. The action and feel are accommodating, and the fretwork is unimpeachable. The nut and saddle are made from Tusq, a synthetic material that purports to transmit more vibrations to the uke’s top.
My only gripe about both Naupakas’ playability, and indeed my only gripe about these instruments at all, was the finishing on the nut and saddle. The nuts on both were left too tall and could have used some final shaping. As they were, the nuts were tall enough that they covered the entire string, and the edges caught the sides of my hands when I played open-position chords.
Likewise, the saddles could have been shaped more elegantly to fit the bridges’ contour. They’re no biggies and can be easily handled by your local repairer, but I’d like to see a little more attention to detail in this price range.
Players are either going to love the Naupaka’s half-and-half looks or not—I love it. But if you’re just judging on sound, KoAloha might be on to something here.
These ukes have a special sound that manages to straddle mellow, snappy, bright, and deep—or, in other words, the best of koa and mango. It’s an appealing alternative for players looking for a distinctive sound and look.
- Tenor size with half-koa, half-mango body
- East Indian rosewood fingerboard with paua shell position markers
- Geared tuners
- Tusq nut and saddle
- $1,250 list; $1,125 street
- Soprano size with half-koa, half-mango body
- Koa fingerboard with mango position markers
- Friction tuners
- Tusq nut and saddle
- $870 list; $783 street
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Ukulele magazine.
Click here for more on that issue.
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