Story by Kathy Collins | Photography by Adi Ell-Ad
Ask Edmond Tavares how he became the guru of Maui’s ‘ukulele makers, and the lanky luthier laughs at the suggestion before shrugging it off. He points to the craftsmen who have honored him with the unofficial title and says, “We’re all associates, we share ideas. I wouldn’t call myself an expert. Those guys say things like that just so they can keep coming to the man cave.”
The man cave is Tavares’ woodworking shop and every Saturday up to half a dozen craftsmen gather there to build ‘ukulele. Most of them learned the basics of making ‘ukulele fifteen years ago, in the same adult education class, and they’ve been getting together ever since.
Tavares took the class on a whim, after retiring from the construction business. “My whole adult life I’ve been building stuff,” he explains. “I’m not a musical person, but the class sounded fun. The first ‘ukulele I made looked awful and sounded worse. But the value was in learning all of the parts of the instrument and how they go together.”
Ninety or so ‘ukulele later, Tavares is now a senior member of both the Maui ‘Ukulele Guild and the statewide Hawai‘i ‘Ukulele Guild. Much as he downplays his influence and talents, others extol them; his fans include world-renowned luthier Steve Grimes, who lives on Maui and whose guitars have been displayed at the Smithsonian. “Edmond is a mechanical genius. And extremely humble and generous,” says Grimes. “He’s got probably the best collection of wood on the island, and he happily shares it. And he has come to my rescue several times by creating unique jigs [specialized tools].”
Tavares won’t accept commissions or repair jobs because, he says, that’s “too much pressure.” While he has sold a few of his instruments, most were given away to friends and family or schools, churches, and charity auctions. “I’ve always enjoyed woodworking, but I’m 77 now,” he says. “Making ‘ukulele is a lot easier on the body than making bookshelves and rocking chairs.”