I travel to Hawaii each year to co-lead a workshop on the island of Molokai. The facility we use happens to have a few Ukuleles available to play. I was instantly smitten by this incredible little instrument, and, with my guitar skills was able to play one rather quickly. So much fun!
I have played guitar since high school. I am average at best, however, I have a deep love for the instrument. I marvel at the craftsmanship required to create such an instrument. I love anything created from wood especially instruments. I even love to smell inside the sound hole of a solid wood instrument. Mmmmmmm….. When I strum an E chord, I love feeling its deep resonance and warm tone. I love guitars!
If you’ve made it this far, thank you! Believe it or not, This story does have a photography connection. And quite honestly, its a fun story. At least many I’ve told it to, have told me so, and, encouraged me to write it out. Read on!
After purchasing two Pono Ukuleles, I started watching a Youtube channel “Got A Ukulele” I enjoy his reviews, very practical and fair, always playing the same chords and songs for each review. One day about three years ago, he lovingly held a blue Ukulele case in his hands, caressing it and exclaiming, “Oh, OH, Ohhhhh, I can’t wait to show you this one!” He immediatly had my attention! At the end of his glowing review he said, “this instrument is as good or better than any of the “K” brands coming out of Hawaii.” Quite a statement to make considering they are thought to be the finest in the world! Then he said, “and, its made in China!” I was intrigued. I immediately got on the Internet and looked up Anuenue to see if I might be able to purchase one. Sadly, I learned they do not sell to the United States. Not to be deterred, I wrote to the info@emai address to see if I might be able to get one sent and how much. I got an email back, $1,600!! I wrote back telling them it was too much for me at the moment, congratulated them for the incredible reviews they were getting, and told them I would save my pennies to in hopes of one day owning one. Then, the next day I received an email from the owner, Johnson Liao. He told me he had clicked my photography link in the signature block on my email. He said he loved my photography, and, offered to send me a UT-200 at cost, if I would photograph it as I traveled and send the images to him to use. I wrote back expressing my gratitude and excitement. I shared some of the places I’d be traveling, including Hawaii where I worked with National Geographic photographers, and could have native Hawaiians playing his Ukuleles. The next email I received said, “we’ve reconsidered, and would like to just send you the UT-200 so you can start making images.” I wondered, why did Johnson click on my website link? Why is he making this generous offer? His subsequent email shed light on my curiosity.
“I was born in Taiwan, and family immigrate to BC, Canada. I live in Canada for 13 years, and move back to Asia in 2005 for my love and passion for musical instrument. I won 1st place “under the microscope” photography when I was in high school.I collect a few African animal life photos, bought from yellow korner. I enjoy looking at good photography.” There is was! He clicked on the link because he too had a love for photography! That was the connection!
Again, if you’ve now made it this far…. read on. And even stronger photography connection to be revealed….
We struck a deal back in January of 2017 and in a couple of weeks e a UT-200 arrived to photograph and play. I remember that day well. I was as giddy as a 5 year old at Christmas! When I played the first chord, my wife stopped mid stride and blurted out. “OH MY! That sounds amazing!” I was in love, and began taking it with me everywhere I went. It is an incredible instrument.
Below, the Smokies in TN
If you go to the Anuenue website with this link, you’ll see my image from Zabriskie Point (lead image in this post).
The image below was used in a printed version of his Asian catalogue.
About a year after sending Johnson images he seemed pleased as he offered to build me a custom Koa Ukulele and even put my JB Logo in the head stock (see below). This is an incredible instrument. A one of a kind collectors piece really. He chose wood from his private stash, premium Koa. I am still in shock that I even own this instrument. By the way the instrument below is sitting in a Koa tree in Hawaii! Cool huh!?
Then Johnson asked me if I’d like a custom built “travel” guitar. Again, I was shocked, why me? Why so generous, but, how could I refuse?! About this time, I found out that Johnson would be visiting the United States with a group from his factory in China. In fact, he would be less than an hour away, visiting the Martin Guitar factory. Cathy and I asked if we could meet him and take him to dinner. He arrived with the guitar pictured below. The first strum and Cathy said, “that guitar sings!” Note the JB in the headstock with Dream- Believe – Create on the fretboard and then a Rosette around the sound hole made of 5 different woods to look like a shutter in a camera. Truly the finest small guitar I’ve ever played. Extraordinary craftsmanship and tone.
At dinner, I began to realize just what Johnson’s plan was all along. He wanted me to come to China, to photograph is factory. His vision was to have images that told the story of the loving care taken by his employees to craft the best handmade instruments they could make just for you! I asked, “but you have many wonderful photographers in China. Why pay for me to come to China?” His answer, “Yes, we have many fine photographers, however, we don’t have you! You love my instruments and you play. I believe your images will be different and show your passion and love.” Wow! He really gets it! He understands just how important connection to subject is! Something I have written about before and believe strongly. We agreed to an August 2018 trip to Guangzhou China to photograph the factory. That story, in Part 2, next.
Bandon Beach, Oregon