For those who don't know the name, Pono is a widely-loved Hawaiian ukulele company subsidiary. If you're curious as to why Pono ukuleles are so loved by the global ukulele community, take a dive into the story of John Kitakis, Noa Bonk and a glimpse of their factory in Java, Indonesia.
John Kitakis began his career as a luthier in 1979 with the opening of 'Kitakis stringed instrument repair' in North Carolina. Before long John was repairing almost every imaginable stringed instrument under the sun. He was the certified Taylor, Martin, Gibson and Guild warranty repairer in North Carolina (among other major brands). Despite never being short of business John always made time to toy around and experiment making custom stringed instruments.
In the early days of the repair shop, when Noa (John's stepson) was still in school, Noa fell in love with the art of repairing and making stringed instruments. He was changing tuners and strings at 10 years old, and by 15 years old he was doing warrantied Martin neck-resets! Growing up in Hawaii, and being a ukulele lover, Noa developed a passion for building ukuleles. Even in his teen years, he would read Guitar Maker magazine late at night and brain-storm new ideas for jigs in his head and how he could improve his ukuleles. This passion led him to make the decision to pursue a career in stringed instrument making, apprenticing under his father John in his high school years. This included becoming certified by all of the major guitar makers for warranty repair.
Ko'olau Ukulele Company
In 1996 John and Noa moved back to Hawaii and founded Ko’olau Guitar and Ukulele Company. By this time they had already repaired thousands of high-end stringed instruments and had already found the perfect balance between structural integrity and sweet uninhibited resonance. You can have faith that they know what works, and what doesn’t.
Within a few years, Ko’olau grew into a popular high-end ukulele brand known for their virtually unlimited customisability (elaborate binding, inlays, custom shell rosettes, sound-ports, pin-bridges, slotted headstocks, radiused fretboards, truss rods, and more). If it could be imagined it could be built!
An example of some of Ko'olau's custom ukuleles
To date, Noa has made over 2000 custom Ko'olau ukuleles (and they're not cheap! So that says something). Check out the below video interview of Noa Bonk.
In lieu of their popularity and the gratitude so many customers had for John and Noa's craftsmanship, they were compelled to create a more affordable ukulele line to supply the global ukulele community with Ko'olau quality ukuleles, but at a more affordable price-point.
Thus John set off to Indonesia to form a collaboration with a local luthier family with a long and distinguished track record of manufacturing music instruments and, remarkably, was one of the earliest members of the NAMM (and has been participating in the NAMM show for more than 60 years!).
John and Noa with their valued staff at Pono's factory in Java, Indonesia
Noa Bonk & John Kitakis explain: "about twenty-five years ago we decided to focus more on manufacturing, especially the ‘ukulele. Ukuleles have been popular in Hawaii for over 100 years, however, now the whole world has fallen in love with this little instrument. But now the demand is for better quality. Our goal from the beginning was to produce the most professional quality ukulele possible, regardless of the time and cost required. And so, Ko‘olau Guitars and Ukuleles were born."
John Kitakis overseeing Pono ukulele's production process in Java, Indonesia