The KoAloha Ukulele Story is an animated short film based on my first interview with Alvin “Pops” Okami, the Renaissance man of Hawaii. Alvin has had multiple personas in his lifelong career including being a singer, oboe player, composer of commercial jingles and songs, creator of the Miso Mouse cartoon character, inventor of small plastic products like the toothpaste squeezer and Spam musubi maker, and presently the founder and head of Research and Development for KoAloha Ukulele.
At first, Alvin was initially reluctant to do the interview with me. I came to KoAloha on a Saturday hoping the shop would be nice and quiet to do the interview but I could hear Alvin upstairs hard at work trying to tune a batch of new ukuleles.
Alvin – What? Do I have to do this? Can you do it for me?
Pat – No, you have to do it. It’ll be good for you. He wants to hear your story.
With the help of his encouraging wife Pat, Alvin reluctantly agrees and stops tuning his ukulele and comes down the stairs to meet me in the show room. Within seconds his sour demeanor changes and he begins to enjoy and relish the act of telling his own story. He seems to be a natural at it almost a master storyteller. He recalls each moment by moment with such vivid detail as if it were only yesterday. He then becomes the voice of each of his characters bringing them to life right before my very eyes. After sharing just a few stories about growing up and playing oboe for the Royal Hawaiian Band Alvin pauses slightly and says, “Do you want to know how KoAloha first started?”
As if the previous stories were just an appetizer to wet the pallet, Alvin launches on a no holes barred journey back to his days running a bankrupt plastics company to his moment of inspiration and divine intervention that led him to make the first miniature playable ukulele which led to the birth of what is the modern day KoAloha Ukulele.
The interview was a spontaneous and unexpected gem. When I got home I was so excited. I wanted to review Alvin’s story on my camera. I immediately fast forward the recording and I see the first few stories but then all of a sudden all I see is white noise and static. I rewind the footage just to be sure. The footage was corrupted. My heart immediately sinks to the floor. I had lost the KoAloha Story. It was gone. I was pretty devastated and resigned to putting this project in my pile of, “incomplete films, never to be looked at or completed.”
I did have a backup audio recorder during the interview that captured the full story so I had great sound but no picture. I knew that even if I asked Alvin to retell the story on my next trip to Hawaii the moment was lost. This story would never be captured in the same way.
Weeks went by and I soon gave up and forgot about the project. But somehow I could not let it go. So every so often I would still find a way to listen to Alvin’s KoAloha Story. Sometimes I’d play it over and over and listen to the story in my headphones or in the car for inspiration. And every time I played it, I would smile and say, “Wow! That’s an amazing story!” Playing the The KoAloha Story again and again was like my own little mantra. If Alvin could do it, I could do it too!
After hearing the story so many times in in my head I began to see pictures. I began to see a real movie unfold in my head. I would daydream a bit and wonder. Maybe I could animate the story? Tell the story through simple storybook pictures and animations like a children’s book.
But reality would soon set in. I knew I could not draw at all. There was just no way to do it. I would need a professional animator someone who could bring the story to life and evoke the simplicity of Alvin’s story. No one came to mind. And so I gave up once again.
About a month later, I run into Rocky Kev, one of my former students from the Asian Arts Initiative, a community center in Philadelphia where I teach theater and filmmaking classes. As soon as I see Rocky it immediately hits me. Rocky’s an animator. I think he can do it! I’ve always admired Rocky’s drawings and comic book characters when he was at the community center doodling away on his sketchbook. His unique style always put a smile to my face.
All I have is the sound of his story. Maybe there’s a way you can animate it?
Rocky – Sure! I’d love to hear it. (pause) What’s a ukulele?
Rocky is Cambodian American and grew up in South Philadelphia and when we started the film he had never been to Hawaii or even knew what a ukulele was but when he heard the story for the first time he immediately called and said, “I love the story! When do you want to start?”
It took nearly a year to put the animated story together. Before any of the animations were made I spent countless hours editing Alvin’s oral history in order to get the pure essence and kernel of The KoAloha Story. Because Rocky and I are from the U.S. mainland we knew we could never be completely authentic to local Hawaii-isms or to every single detail that actually happened in the story.
We knew if we created an animation for authenticity sake we would fail miserably. So we used the power of our own creativity and imagination and made the story a black and white animation to make images that were simple and evocative of our early childhood memories. We wanted to bring the KoAloha story to life in our own way. I can proudly say that taking this detour and making this film animated brought to life the KoAloha story in a way that would never have been captured on film. It was truly a blessing in disguise. The failure of the camera to not capture this precious story may have been meant to be all along.
This journey to create the first animated ukulele documentary has been as amazing as the story itself. I feel absolutely honored and blessed to have the privilege to bring the first part of The KoAloha Story film series to the screen. Alvin Okami’s story is a reminder to us all to never to give up and to believe that some things in life happen for a very special reason. This story is all that and more.