Sam Rosen

Words: Cory White

Images: Cory White

We all have ideas about how things should work. I should research Hawaiian hand crafted ukulele makers online and subsequently choose from a list of talented blokes that just so happen to have an affable persona, perfectly art directed workspace and rare animal magnetism. After all thats how publications come together right? It turns out that google apparently cant search for such qualities. Its a timely reminder that not everything can be found online. And that not all we seek can be guided by a device. Without becoming too prophetic I guess we’ve got to trust the universe to provide when the time is right.

Just a day short of my departure from the Big island , suitably let down and lamenting my lack of found ukulele stories, I stumble upon the Holualoa Ukulele Gallery. Sam Rosen is at the helm, albeit in a laconic manner. We spend the morning talking about the craft, his life and yesteryear in Hawaii .

Had I of continued to chase this feature I don’t think I would have found it. Thanks to Sam’s generosity and willingness to let a stranger into his world , unannounced and with a camera, I fortuitously got my helping of Aloha Spirit.



Current location and weather report:

I am in the small Hawaiian village of HOLUALOA at about 1300 ft elevation. The weather has been HOT and HUMID. About89 degrees Fahrenheit . Expecting rain.

Did you ever envisage your life being that of a Ukulele Luthier?

No, I never thought that my life would be doing what I’m doing today. Building ukuleles has taken over my life.

What is so special about the Ukulele to you?

The ukulele has allowed me to finally play (not that well) music and meet people from around the world. I believe that my role in life is to teach building and promoting the ukulele.

In your opinion who is the best Ukelele player in the world?

Its hard to say who is the best ukulele player in he world. Each of the best are important in their own way. Jake Shimaburkuro, James Hill, Ohta San(Herb Ohta Sr), Brother Iz, are just a few. Everyone will have an opinion. There are so many.

How did you come to be in Hawaii after being born on the mainland?

I moved to the Big Island of Hawaii in 1977, directly to this particular area. I always thought of living on an island, and when the opportunity to move here came up, I jumped at it. It was not like me to do this, but it seemed right at the time


What’s it like living in the shadow of a Volcano ?

It is interesting living on the slope of an active volcano. We know that it can erupt at any time, but to worry about it is a waste of time. There is nothing we can do about it anyway. So why worry.

Kailua-Kona is firmly established Hawaiian coffee country. How do you resist the urge to over-consume?

The Kona Coast is the home of the famous “KONA COFFEE”, and at one time I was a avid coffee drinker, but  more lately I have cut way back. I might have a half a cup every other day. I think, because I’m non addictive. I really don’t miss it.

Can you describe the HOLUALOA ‘UKULELE GALLERY in one sentence?

It’s a place where you can come and see some of the best ukuleles made in the islands, and be lucky enough to be here when one of the local musicians or talented visitors honors us with their music.samrosen_mrb_2samrosen_mrb_1

I quote you as saying, the essential thing you need bring to a ukulele building course  is “a sense of humour”. Can you explain why?

 I tell people who want to take my workshop to wear shoes and have a sense of humor, because I might drop something heavy or sharp on your foot. And we have to be together for up to 70hrs, so you better have a sense of humor.

If you were’nt building ukulele’s what would you be doing?

 Since I was a goldsmith and sculpture before I started building ukuleles, if for any reason I stopped building, I would probably do more sculpting. I’ve also started doing a little shell inlay. Might do more of that.

How well do you play the Ukulele now?

I’ve taken lessons many times, from some of the best, but if I don’t practice I forget. So on a scale of 1-5, I’m maybe a 1 1/2 – 2.samrosen_mrb_7 samrosen_mrb_6

What is “aloha spirit” ?

My feeling about the ALOHA SPIRIT is what you find here in Holualoa. The KONA HOTEL, back in the day when the Inaba family was still all living in the hotel, was, in my opinion, the centre of the aloha spirit. They were always open to friends and strangers alike. The hotel was the centre of town. You always checked in with them if you were going somewhere so they could pass on any info you wanted and they made sure you were OK.

We all have our ideas of what ALOHA SPIRIT really is. But for me, it’s about taking time with people without feeling it cost you money for the time spent.

Given the incredibly diverse and spectacular landscape of the Big Island, where do you like to explore on your days off?

What’s that? A day off? We enjoy working on the house, or in the garden, or building a garden gate, or just hanging out. We have an ocean view, a mountain view and a jungle view. When a friend asked Nora (my life partner) what her BUCKET LIST was, she responded simply with: ‘just to stay home and work in my studio’. Maybe next year we will visit Japan.

Tell us about what Ukulele’s you build.

I build all four sizes of ukulele; soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. I also teach people how to build all of these.I started teaching because someone asked if I could. I did not know for sure, but said I’d try, and it worked. Why not pass on what I know?

We have a builders guild and we share our knowledge with each other. The more makers the better. The world would be a much better place if everyone played a ukulele.samrosen_mrb_10 samrosen_mrb_3 samrosen_mrb_5

Any advice for someone considering a move to Hawaii?

I always tell people that want to move to Hawaii that they need to have a sense of humor, expect nothing and don’t be surprised at anything.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Ten years from now I will be 88yrs old. If I can keep going as I am now, I would like to still be working at something,whether its ukulele building/teaching or sculpting. So long as I’m able to keep working.

3 reasons to visit The Big island.

 Everyone should visit the BIG ISLAND to see the volcano, The Place of  Refuge, and just to explore the diversity of our island.samrosen_mrb_2

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