I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m a little bit obsessive. If I find something that intrigues me I kind of want to go to the source and ask questions. Which is how I found myself at the home workshop of Mr. Jean Henri Teriipaia learning how he builds Tahitian Ukuleles (well I was also there to interview him for a an article…).
The first thing I wanted to know was exactly what a Tahitian Ukulele is…
Most people are pretty familiar with the Hawaiian version—the story there is that a small guitar-like instrument was taken to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 1880’s. The Tahitian version is supposed to be based on those little guitars and according to Wikipedia it came to French Polynesia quite a bit later.
But, according to Jean, it probably wasn’t that much later that they showed up here—he recalls his grandmother talked about playing the Tahitian version as a little girl. And he’s pretty sure they predated her. Because by the time she was going to parties pretty much everyone played the ukulele…
Jean's theory is that some sort of early ukulele arrived on one of the French Polynesian Islands around the same time they were spreading through Hawaii. Because the sound of the ukulele is a good match for the natural rhythms of the Polynesian songs and dances it was quickly adopted. But because most people made their own instruments using basic hand tools, and the original ukulele would have been difficult for amateurs to reproduce, the instrument was adapted. And at some point, way back when, it took on its current easier-to-build form.
Jean has been making ukuleles for about ten years. He started after seeing his neighbour making them. He watched the process and realized he had a few ideas of his own—so he modified the sound by changing the bowl shape, then he changed the way they appeared. By gluing several different local woods together he developed both a new look and sound—his style of ukulele quickly became so popular that he became locally famous.
Jean can only produce about 10 ukuleles every two weeks. Because he’s involved in every step (from finding and cutting down the trees!) to hand carving the bowl, to doing the finish work he’s not able to build any quicker. This means he doesn’t keep any ukuleles in stock and he sells everything he produces by advanced order
I got the impression he wouldn’t produce faster if he could—his two sons help him, but he says he’s not yet taught them all his techniques. He’s saving a few tricks to show them later.
It was obvious by his modest home that the ukulele business is not a lucrative one—in fact, his most elaborate hand-carved instruments don’t cost much more than $150. But he seems to really love matching people to the right instrument—which I discovered, when I unexpectedly left his house with a little beginner ukulele of my own.
|one of Jean's children holding what became my ukulele|
It’s awfully cute and with only four strings it has a very different sound than Maia’s uke—but together they sing a little harmony that will let us take Tahiti with us. Where ever we go.
If you are in Tahiti and want a hand built uke: Mr Jean Henri TERIIPAIA Ph: + 689 73 49 89