View Full Version : Tahiti Scouting Report

04-08-2012, 03:41 PM
In this recent thread, someone asked about finding a Tahitian ukulele and got the obvious response:


Indeed, Tahiti is the place to get one but perhaps a bit more information would be useful!

For the uninitiated, a Tahitian uke is much like a banjo uke. The body is a solid carving with more or less decoration and the sound is produced by a thin, round, wooden soundboard that is set into the body. The sound is more like a banjo than a Hawaiian-style uke and the volume is meager even when strummed hard with a plastic pick, which is the usual mode. Tahitians don't seem to have much use for bass, which is fine because the instrument doesn't make any. In fact, the third string seems to usually be tuned an octave up. Eight paired strings is the most common configuration and a four stringed uke is sometimes referred to as a beginner's instrument. Yellow-green fishing line is the string of choice and it is common for all to be the same gauge, though I did see what I thought were different gauges a couple of times.

This guy played very well in the fast-strum Tahitian style. His instrument is certainly a cut above the gift store variety. He gladly let me play and really got kick out of the fact that a popa’a (Tahitian for a pathetically pale skinny white guy) could knock out some tunes.


Here are a few that were being sold on the street for about $175:


Many gift shops have similar instruments, few of which are well made and finished. I was told by a taxi driver, who had his uke with him in the front seat to stave off boredom at night, that the reason that he plays the Tahitian-style instrument is that Hawaiian ukes are not readily available and too expensive. He was obviously taken with the concert pineapple that I had with me and enjoyed playing it.

It's not uncommon to see the locals sitting around making music:


Obviously, guitars are used and, this being the case, I'm not sure why Hawaiian ukes are not. I did see professional groups use them on several occasions (always along with Tahitian ukes that create an important part of the unique Tahitian sound), so it may just be that there is no local building community and imported ukes are out of reach for a lot of people.

These very accomplished musicians were on the sidewalk in Papeete (the capital), one playing a Tahitian uke and the other playing a six-string Kamaka tenor. It turns out that the older fellow, Perry Alphonse, has been to the US several times to represent Tahiti in what he described as "cultural events." He said that his Kamaka is over thirty years old and it looks at least that, mostly due to playing with a pick. The Kamaka was tuned gcea but with a high c in the Tahitian style. Perry is actually Paumotuan rather than Tahitian and we enjoyed talking about his home islands, the Tuamotus, which I visited by sea many years ago.


While we're on the subject of Kamakas, all Hawaiian ukes are called "Kamakas" in Tahiti. I didn't yet know this when I was walking down the street with my home-made pineapple in its case and a young woman asked me if I had a Kamaka. I laughed and said "no," which obviously confused her when I pulled the pineapple out of the case. From her point of view, a Kamaka was exactly what I had in the case.

While driving along in Moorea, I saw a sign with a picture of an outline of a Hawaiian uke. After some screeching brakes and flying gravel, we came to a stop in front of Woody's shop. He's a haole from Oahu who has lived in French Polynesia for many years. Check out his web site:


He makes some very nice guitars and ukes out of both local and imported woods. His tou wood (kou in Hawaii) ukes are fabulously gorgeous and represent a rare opportunity to acquire an instrument made of this hard-to-find wood.

So, where can one get a good quality Tahitian uke? Try this store:


The owner makes Tahitian ukes that are well built and nicely finished, several of which were on display. I had a long conversation with the young guy who was manning the store ("Tino," which I think is spelled Tinau) and he emphasized that these instruments are built to produce the best possible sound and are the ones used by local professionals. A couple had pickups installed so that seems plausible. The prices were in the range of $225 to $300 (that's USD). He asked that I not take photos because his boss is concerned that others will copy his designs. He speaks excellent English and will respond to emails. Shipping overseas is available. They also had a new Kamaka tenor on display that could have been mine for about $2500! So, it does seem that imported instruments cost a lot of money in Tahiti!

Harold O.
04-09-2012, 06:36 PM
My sister brought me a Tahitian uke she found on Moorea. That was a few years ago and it started me playing.

We're taking our daughters there in July and I'm looking forward to meeting the man who made mine (Robert Aka). Whether or not I'll play with the locals is another matter altogether. I'm bouncing between taking a standard uke or my Tahitian on the trip. From your post, I reckon I could bring a standard and swap for another Tahitian.

Capt Roy
04-10-2012, 12:51 AM
Thanks for the information... I'm headed there right after Thanksgiving this year for a 2 week cruise and I want to pick one up to add to my collection.

It really helps to have some information before you go!!

04-10-2012, 04:05 AM
Excellent travelogue! Thanks for the details. Didn't know too much about Tahitian ukuleles, but your post motivated me to check out youtube for some examples. Some really good videos of street music and their uke's unique sound.

Thanks for the report.

04-10-2012, 05:46 AM
This post was one of the better ones I've read lately. Far more enjoyable for both the brief peek at both the history & culture of the local music than for the actual info on where to get Tahitian ukes.

04-10-2012, 07:18 AM
Mahalo nui for sharing your "cultural travel experiences" and pictures! Would you happen to remember what the Tahitians called their instrument? Seems odd to me now to call it a Tahitian ʻUkulele--but I have for years. I think the rare use of the Hawaiian ʻukulele relates to Tahitian identity and cultural pride.

So the Azores Portuguese introduced their instrument to Hawaiians, which was "enhanced" to become an ʻukulele. Perhaps a similar instrument was introduced by another culture to the Tahitians, perhaps Hawaiian, and the result became their Tahitian "enhanced" version of the instrument.

Interesting topic.

Thanks again,

04-10-2012, 09:52 AM
Any problems bringing the "uke" back into the mainland States? I'll be there in a few weeks and I'd hate to "fall in love with one" buy it and not get it home.

04-10-2012, 12:21 PM
Harold: I don't doubt that you can easily make a trade with someone playing on the street. The central market in Papeete is a good place find the locals jamming.

Capt Roy: When your ship is tied up in Papeete, walk two blocks inland in the direction that the bow is pointing and you'll run into Rue Collette, which is parallel to the waterfront. That's where you'll find the Pedron shop and La Marquisienne, the best cafe/patisserie in town.

Moukpuni: Tahitians clearly refer to their version of the instrument as "ukulele," even though the word is Hawaiian. I also would be interested in knowing the origin of the instrument, as it would appear to owe little to the Hawaiian ukulele or its Portuguese forebears. It is obviously closely related to the Cook Islands Maori version but no telling which direction the instrument went as between the two. As a side note, as delightfully energetic and animated as Tahitian music and dance are, the Cook Islands raise the ante! I don't know if the Banana Court Bar is still open in Rarotonga but thirty years ago, that place absolutely shook in the evening.

quiltingshirley: I carried my concert in a soft case through customs in LA and no one cared. We were briefly interviewed by a friendly agent who mainly wanted to know about alcohol and if we had a nice trip - sort of a preliminary evaluation that seemed appropriate to decide if we were suspicious. I doubt that a musical instrument would excite much interest.

Harold O.
04-10-2012, 02:19 PM
I won't in Papeete for very long. We're on our way to Moorea.

My sister has gone there every July for the past dozen years or so. She's gotten to know quite a few locals and has watched several kids grow up. She even had a couple of the families come out to California and stay at her place in Ventura. Like anywhere, once you get to know the people and show yourself to be a reasonable cookie, you're in. Language can be a barrier. Music can open doors.