The name KoAloha comes from the Hawaiian words kou aloha, meaning “your love.” The name also includes “koa,” which is a native Hawaiian wood used to make KoAloha ukuleles.
When it comes to family run businesses KoAloha ukuleles may be one of the most familial of them all. Even the employees who are not biologically related to Alvin “Pops” and Pat “Moms” Okami soon end up part of the family. The series of fortuitous events and coincidences that led Alvin to discover his true calling, building ukuleles, is almost as inspirational as the family itself.
Alvin Okami is an innovator, inventor, singer, and accomplished multi-instrumentalist who composes his own songs and has released several CDs, including Beautiful Days (2014). After a brief career performing with Hawaiian musician Herb “Ohta-san” Ohta Sr., Okami launched a factory specializing in plastics that manufactured a series of devices he invented. At first he was very successful, but as the cost of raw materials rose, his profit margins dropped, and he found his company losing money.
He was desperate to find another way to earn a living when Ohta-san, whom he hadn’t seen in many years, dropped by. In conversation, the friend mentioned that Japanese tourists at his sister’s souvenir shop had been asking for miniature ukuleles to bring home.
“The idea was so persistent it wouldn’t leave me alone,” Okami says in the award-wining short film The KoAloha Ukulele Story. However, Okami had no idea how to build the miniature playable ukes, complete with real tuning pegs that he envisioned. One day he went to his closed shop all alone to brainstorm, and a lost jewelery manufacturers’ rep just happened to knock on the door. Just the right guy, at the right moment, to provide the tiny tools he needed.
According to Okami, there have been lots of moments like that one. “I know that it was devine intervention,” concludes Okami. In fact, when people refer to him as the founder of KoAloha ukuleles he’s quick to point out that he’s just “an instrument of the man upstairs.”
Family ties are strong in Hawaii, and especially in the Okami family. So despite some initial reservations about making ukuleles Okami’s sons, Alan and Paul, joined him in the business. Soon they began making high quality full-size ukuleles.
The Okami’s have become accomplished luthiers and their instruments are now sought-after worldwide. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2015, Alan is now president of the company, Paul is vice president and master luthier, Pat “Moms” Okami is treasurer, and Alvin holds the title senior vice president.
People often ask Alvin if it’s difficult working with family. “We hardly have conflicts because our assignments are specific to our given abilities and talents, so nobody oversteps the other’s boundaries,” he says. “We each have our own little niches and we are totally happy. It is unbelievable.”
KoAloha has seen the market for ukuleles grow tremendously. Okami says it’s something no one can really explain, but he has some ideas on the subject. “Ukulele is a simple four-string instrument, but ukulele alone can mend the heart, can encourage, can bring laughter, hope, joy to whoever plays it from age three to 90; there’s no other instrument that comes even close to bringing such enjoyment,” he says, concluding that uke is the “chosen” instrument. “Because of all of the world pressures today there is a strong desire in everybody’s heart to want to have relief, release, and encouragement.”
“I cannot tell you how many comments we get from people all over the world saying how much ukulele has encouraged them and given them a reason to go on,” he continues. “Whatever stresses they face, when they go home and they pick up this little four-string instrument, and they start strumming, the sense of accomplishment, the sense of hope it is immeasurable.”
But the Okami family’s success—building some of the most beautiful, best sounding, and most sought after ukuleles on the market—is not the end of the story. The Okami’s are known for their giving and their tireless efforts in the community, including building ukuleles with children in impoverished areas of Hawaii.
“One day, back in 1995, the thought came to me, why don’t I just start giving,” Okami says, explaining how he gifted a ukulele to a neighbor with little means. “The joy that I saw in the expression on his face said it all.”
“We are all of the same spirit, even though we were in a position not to give, we continued to give,” he says. “I know many people say that, when you give, you receive. We don’t give, so that we can receive; we give out of a heart of compassion, love for our fellow man, and we let the almighty take care of the rest.”
“We actually donate more ukuleles than perhaps any one of our salaries per year. We aren’t giving from any type of motive except the essence of pure philanthropy,” he says. “We are giving out of the abundance that we now have, but when we didn’t have [abundance], we still gave. What began as a small gesture, blossomed into a beautiful thing. Giving will always be a part of KoAloha. Without giving, I don’t think we could survive, it’s that important to KoAloha”