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 Chinese 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.

Comments 36

  1. OK I’ll say more…Kudos to Hawaii for being for the most part open to Chinese ukes. Hawaii made uke sales have probably increased due to the availability of cheap ukes from China. I have several, they play fine. Some better than my Kamaka, but there is something about a made in Hawaii uke, call it cool factor, snob appeal or whatever, but it is something. These partialy made in Hawaii hybrids should probably say “assembled in Hawaii”. If I had one..knowing the facts..I would keep right on playing it. If I couldn’t live without a Hawaii purebred, I would correct the label in my Keli’i keep playing it and buy a Kamaka. Ukes are just too fun to get worked up over.

  2. Thank you Andrew for Having a higher standard. It’s local made or it isnt. Do others have that philosophy,do others include cases,humidifiers & shipping ,change string sets & all those other FREE items I wonder

  3. Thanks for the great post. I noticed you stop selling Keli’i ukuleles and thought that was the reason, since there are some chinese ukes that look very similar, like Koa Pili Koko. I thinhk its a shame, they really seem to sound and look very nice, but I appreciate the honesty and the way you handled this situation.
    IMHO you guys should have more options under the $500-800 price range. Keli’i was pretty much the only ukes between the Ponos, Kalas, etc and the big K’s. There are some good brands out there (not made in Hawaii, though), like the Big Island and LoPrinzi’s.
    Thanks again, and keep up the good work you are doing for the ukulele community.

  4. perhaps recatigorizing them in non-Hawaiin made ukes like Pono is an option . They sound good and are priced for what they are. People need varety and a mid price option. They have been slapped on hand for their secret

  5. Any idea on when they stopped actually making all of the uke in Hawaii? Or has this been the case for quite some time? Maybe around the change from friction to geared?

  6. My my. The truth is so elusive these days. Shrouded in double talk and buried in contracts that take two days to read. To me “made in Hawaii” (or made in anywhere else for that matter, means fully constructed from scratch and put together in that locale. Nothing else. Naive me.

  7. Not sure that dropping the Keli’i line entirely is the answer…just identify them for what they are- a quality ukulele that is partially built overseas. I recently compared three tenor ukes here in Michigan. While I loved the KoAloha best (and bought it), my second choice was the Keli’i over the Kamaka just because it sounded better to me. You sell Pono and Koalana ukes…no difference really, is there? Just advertise them truthfully and fairly.

    1. Totally agree and I offered that exactly but was denied. They don’t want them advertised this way. Legally they can say Made in Hawaii and do not want dealers to say otherwise. But I did want to keep the line. There is nothing wrong with overseas production to help keep cost down. Any race and place is capable of great things. But Keli’i sells like crazy because “Made in Hawaii” carries weight. So they would rather drop us as dealers than change their label. And we would rather lose the sale and just not be involved. Many other stores will sell them and that’s cool with me. They’re perfectly good ukes that will bring tons of joy, and that’s the main thing.

      1. Elderly Instruments (my local store) carries them, but I sent them a note and link to your site. Don’t know if that will bother them or not, but thought they should at least be aware.

  8. Keli’i is merely taking advantage of the letter of the law or regulation in claiming ‘Made in Hawaii’ when it is partially (<50%) made in China, or wherever they find cheap labor. Too bad the law or regulation is not changed to protect the local manufacturers. I understand your position and applaud you for supporting Hawaiian ukulele builders. When they are gone, they are gone for good.

  9. Since my profession is one involving honesty AND judgment, even when potentially hurting folk’s feelings and/or my future livelihood (I’m a commercial real estate appraiser) I especially appreciate Andrew’s last paragraph: “customers to care for and a also a family to nourish”. Obviously he wants to insure that he doesn’t just make money (for his family) but instills values, too. Apparently these values that he believes in extend to his customers best interests. He admits (when pressed, only) that he was placed in an untenable position and one which would force him to make a compromise that HE found unacceptable. There is nothing further that needs to be said (and he made this clear with his brusque and to-the-point ending). Thus, he could not continue the business activities in which he was involved with the company under discussion with their conditions. As people we should wish that ALL of our contacts (family, friends, buyer and seller clients, and especially our politicians) would have that sort of integrity. Letting this topic lie with that said let’s just show our support and make sure we, and all our acquaintances (let’s face it, most have UAS), know to only buy from “Andrew and the crew”.
    P.S., Like Dave Barry the humor columnist, says: that would make a great name for a rock band!

  10. aw man.. Im kinda bummed about this now. oh well.. Thanks for the honesty. And thats why I’l always buy from you guys.
    When I bought my Uke from MGM I told him I wanted a Hawaiian made Uke. He said the Keli’i was the way to go for what price range I was trying to stay in. Think it was $700 or so.
    This was my second Uke. (first was a Lanikai soprano for $50 at a local guitar center).
    This is just more incentive to learn to play better and then buy another from you guys.

    1. I was just at the North Shore store last week (on vacation) and purchased what I guess was one of the last Kelii ukes in the store-not because it was ‘made in Hawaii’ or any nonsense like that (I went there with the expectation of buying a Chinese or Thai model) but because it is a fantastic ukulele and felt perfect in my hands. Your sales associate was completely forthcoming about the hybrid nature of the instrument, which was fine with me, and I left a completely happy camper. So you can imagine my dismay when I got home, looked up the brand online and discovered that the company has decided to drop the line.
      Andrew, I’m sorry, but you are wrong. As a businessman, your first obligation is not to the artisans of Hawaii or even to your own sense of integrity, but to serve your customers! By dropping this wonderful line over your concerns about the labeling, you are depriving your customers of a truly wonderful ukulele choice. For heaven’s sake, please reconsider-explain to your customers what they are actually getting, certainly, but please, please, please don’t refuse to sell these wonderful ukes!

      1. Thanks for your thoughts. Legally he can say Made in Hawaii and does not want dealers to say otherwise. He won’t sell to us if we advertise them as hybrid. Not really my choice.

  11. I find Kelii a rather sneaky company. Other K brands have spent enormous amounts of money investing in new tooling and technologies to keep their own shops running to keep pace with the demand for Hawaiian produced instruments. One only needs to take a tour of some local makers and see high end new machinery including CNC machinery and tooling, that costs 100s of thousands of dollars, to keep their parts produced right here on the islands. Aside from Kamaka, which has no imported line, the local companies have no problem selling their import lines as IMPORTS. And in fact they are proud of the quality of their import lines. Having Chinese labor actually build the bodies and necks is not a Hawaiian made instrument regardless if Kelii glues on a neck and fretboard, sprays a coat of laquer, and puts on some strings. If Kelii was proud of their instruments they would have no problem admitting a majority of the instrument is Chinese made would not have any issues with ‘The Ukulele Site’ telling people that it is a hybrid. It is a cheap trick, and, in my opinion, dishonest how Kelii uses the “Made in Hawaii” rule.

  12. I do see others selling Keli’i ukuleles while fully disclosing the fact that the instruments are hybrids.

    Hopefully, Keli’i will re-think its position in regard to HMS, and seek a more reasonable relationship with your company; one based on solid values and ethics.

  13. Well, then the Keli’i folks are wrong and making a rather sad mistake if they don’t have enough faith in their product to allow their vendors to be honest. And it’s a crying shame! That little Keli’i has turned out to be so much more than I expected. When I bought it I was thinking Island music and a bad Don Ho imitation and instead find myself using it to play rhythm and harmony in a dulcimer and old time folk music band-the uke sound fits into that genre beautifully.

  14. I bought a Keli’i tenor last August (2012), from your North Shore store. I play it almost every day. (I was actually in the process of insuring all my music gear, when I noticed you didn’t carry them anymore. That’s what led me here.) While it may be a bit disheartening to discover the truth… the customer service I received, quality of the product, and the straight forward nature of this review… far outweigh finding out that a guy in China carved my fretboard or something like that. You’re doin’ it right… but you probably already knew that.

  15. well, in spite of andrew’s apparent choice of the high road, the ukulele site currently [june 23, 2013] has a keli’i concert koa wood uke for sale. change of heart?

    btw, there was no mention of where it was manufactured.

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      That was supposed to be a private listing for a specific customer but was accidentally available through the search bar. When we stopped carrying them we still had dozens and still have a few in store. They are good instruments but we haven’t bought any since this post.

      1. As has been said before – Andrew is sticking to his principles and should be applauded for it. If he has a client that asked for a specific product his willingness to supply it (if he was able to do so) has never been at issue. He does not want to be involved in a disingenuous transaction. He has made clear that he has no problem with selling the product so long as it is identified correctly, and so long as he is not expected to be a participant in (for lack of a nicer word) fraud,

  16. How much are they really saving anyway to build part of it in China….?…I mean if they were already being made in Hawaii in a plant or factory…why not just keep doing that….?…Is there that much savings?…you still have to do shipping and handling and all the import/export stuff….and set up a factory….environmental/personnel/legal concerns….
    The ukulele shape hasn’t change…..A few different body types and cheap plastic strings….I say cheap, compared to say…titanium alloys and rare earth metals for superconductor magnets and other manufacturing processes….Basically cutting and bending wood and using glue and a few tools….The design and build process is already in place…..and they’re doing the fit/finish and setup anyway…..so how much can it save?….Unless they’re paying the delivery driver to put the strings on and blow on the glue joints as he drives….
    Its like manufacturing a small mousetrap….These aren’t huge pricey instruments….I can’t figure out why they cost more than a few hundred dollars anyway….There’s less material than in a guitar….It can be more stable as a smaller instrument…. and it weighs less as far as shipping weights….but to cost $5000.00….what can there be in it to cost that much?…rare earth metals and meteorite gloss….?
    Lest this sound like a rant about ukuleles, I happen to own a Kelii tenor that I bought last week and it is made well….Its not super glossy and there aren’t any inlays….but I suppose I can get a dremel and carve it in…but it is fine and plays fine as I learn…..I can’t imagine how a company would save money and then still have to glue the parts together after importing the body and the neck….The neck just needs to be cut and routed….The body needs to be cut and shaped and fit….basically glue and electric tools….The wood has more character and is visually more appealing than others I’ve seen…..Is that all because of the trip to China and back…..Could they not have done the same thing here….It would have taken a couple of weeks….This kinda sounds like healthcare costs are affecting ukulele design….

  17. I was lucky enough to have a good conversation with Andrew on the phone over a uke I ordered. During the conversation we also talked about some other things and I discovered that Andrew is a super nice guy with gentle way about him and just a real all-around professional. I can imagine how writing this article made him feel sick. Thank God he did as it was really necessary to do so . Keli’i has made a dumb professional move and Andrew has the integrity to as gently as possible point this out. In doing so he is indeed caring for his customers and nourishing his family. Not just with the necessities of life such as food or a roof over their heads, but with values that will serve them and others for the rest of their lives. Well done Andrew…

  18. I know this post is a couple of years old, but I feel compelled to write this. I knew some time ago that when the time came to get a Hawaiian ululele I would buy here. Part of that was all the lessons and information that I found so helpful. The other was the fact that they did a setup on any instrument sold. I don’t see how you can make money when you are doing this with the inexpensive ukuleles, but that committment to quality and to the customer is a rare and appreciated commodity. After reading this and realizing that a decision was made that was detrimental to the bottom line, but considered necessary in terms of an ethical decision. I know of precious few companies that would do this, and I know it must have been a very difficult decision. But it has made me a customer for life. That level of ethics is extremely rare and I applaud your decision.

  19. Andrew the high road is the only way to go. I have UAS and purchased 54 ukulele’s so far ( I have given away to friends and family or sold to my coworkers 42 of them) and they vary from Makala dolphin to Kanilea K2T. Many of my favorite ones are made over seas. I have a Romero creations spruce top (from HMS) tiny tenor that was $500, it was made in Vietnam, if Pepe had actually made it the cost would be $2500 way out of my price range. It still plays beautifully and is flawless quality construction. The ukulele purchaser will make the choice based on sound and budget but should be given truthful information so it is an informed decision. Mahalo Andrew.

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  20. Much bruhaha over nothing. Whether it’s made in Hawaii, China, England, Texas doesn’t matter. It’s origin is Portugal. You want a real Hawaiian musical instrument buy a nose flute made from bamboo grown in the islands and drilled out by kids from Kamehameha Schools. And if you really want to be serious about Hawaii made. it should be made by a real Hawaiian, like me, not some other ethnic person who happens to live in Hawaii. So there. I will manufacture ‘ukulele with labels “made by a real Hawaiian person.”

  21. Is there a timeline of when they started prefabing their ukes overseas? I have a concert dated 7-01 and states exclusively hand crafted in Hawaii.
    True what’s the difference if the guy on the Oahu is Chinese or Japanese making my uke, he was probably Filipino

  22. Wow, so many different views on this subject. Every post on here is valid. Here’s one more opinion. If its made well, comfortable to play, sounds great and affordable what more is there to consider. Maybe a more important is how to play it? Andrew is not saying not to purchase Kelii brand, only that he has chosen not to carry them due to his reason stated. We all make choices and having the correct information helps to make the best choice for you.

  23. I recently discovered Cordoba ukuleles are also made in China. I just ordered one online with good reviews, but much to my dismay found a “Made in China” sticker hidden inside, just below the serial number. Don’t be fooled by “Hecho a Mano” prominently written below the model number on the large center-hole sticker. I was hoping this wasn’t the case for all of their ukes, but the FAQ section on their official website states “Cordoba’s Iberia, Fusion, Luthier, La Playa, Acero, and Protege Series [guitars], as well as all Ukuleles are handmade in China.” As well as all ukuleles… nice. However, I can’t argue with the description of my new uke on their website that claims it “is a unique instrument that embodies the simple charm of traditional Portuguese ornamentation. Completely handmade and comes with a Cordoba tenor sized gig bag.” It does come with a REALLY nice gig bag! I suppose I’m just bitter right now, but overall I am pretty satisfied with the ukulele. I just hate getting duped.

  24. So so disappointed… Bought a Tenor with you guys in March 2012… Anyway everything is almost made in china now…

  25. Mine has a label inside that says 12-06 which I assume means Dec of 2006 and says “Handcrafted in Hawaii”. Not sure what the word “handcrafted” means.

  26. I bought a Kelii Soprano Ukulele in 2012 and paid big bucks for it. It is cracking up the back and the company said they don’t know how to fix it and the warranty was only for a year. Wonder if because it may have been made in China the back is cracking in several spots (one the length of the ukulele) with inferior wood. Really bummed about my Ukulele.

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