Text by Sonny Ganaden | Images by John Hook
“A guitar is too cumbersome for Hawai‘i,” Fred Kamaka, Sr. explains during a tour of the Kamaka Hawaii factory, which the 91-year-old gives several mornings a week to the countless devotees of the instrument. Fred is right: an ‘ukulele can be transported on the lap of a passenger in a pick-up truck, carried to the beach, and tucked comfortably under an arm while sipping a drink between songs. With four strings and 16 frets, the versatile standard tenor ‘uke can be enjoyed by toddlers or virtuosic masters; it can accompany comedic acts or the highest range of the human voice. For 56 years, Fred and his brother, Sam Jr., have produced ‘ukulele out of central Honolulu for both amateurs and a veritable gentry of Hawaiian instrumentalists. This year, the Kamaka family of luthiers marks a century of validating the sound of the islands.
The ‘ukulele was already a Hawai‘i favorite by the time Samuel Kamaka, Sr. began producing them in 1916. Decades earlier, Portuguese immigrants who enjoyed making instruments over working in plantation fields created and popularized the ‘ukulele based on models of several European stringed lutes. Its name is usually translated as “jumping flea,” though Queen Lili‘uokalani said that it meant “the gift that came here,” originating from the Hawaiian word uku, meaning “gift,” and lele, meaning “to come.” ‘Ukulele were initially made of Hawaiian acacia koa, a dense tropical hardwood with a lustrous beauty and unique tonal quality. By the late 19th century, these popular instruments were ubiquitous among commoners and royalty.
“My father was unhappy with them, however—too high-pitched and diminutive,” says Fred Sr., one of Samuel Sr.’s two sons. In 1910, Sam Sr. left Hawai‘i on a ship to learn about guitar making, but where he went has become the stuff of legend. According to Fred Sr., Sam Sr. headed to Europe to see how they were making the stringed instruments in countries like Spain and Italy. Other tales tell of him traveling to New York to view world-class instruments and musicians—and maybe even the world’s fair—then working his way home through South America, learning about instruments like the cuatro, a 4-stringed guitar, en route. Either way, he was back on O‘ahu by 1916, when he founded his own company, Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works, determined to create a different kind of ‘ukulele. In 1928, he developed an oval-shaped body upon which an artist friend painted the scales of a pineapple. This pineapple ‘ukulele, which Sam Sr. promptly trademarked, became iconic for its increased volume, a quality that resulted in a full-bodied sound that became a standard for the golden age of Hawaiian song composition. This time period coincided with America’s jazz age, in which the ‘ukulele quickly gained popularity.
But then the Great Depression hit. Kamaka stayed afloat by adopting an economy of scale: They sold ‘ukulele locally for $5, and reached out to Japanese salesmen, wholesaling ‘ukulele for $2.50. “You should have invested then!” Fred Sr. jokes. “Those instruments go for thousands now.” These days, a new custom Kamaka ‘ukulele will set you back more than $3,000—Kamaka has models that go for as much as $5,500—and you’ll wait at least a year to get it. Kamaka also specializes in repairing musical family heirlooms and prized professional instruments. Of the nine models Kamaka produces, including the trademark pineapple ‘ukulele and an eight-stringed tenor created by Sam Jr. in 1976, four variations were designed by the company.
Kamaka has always been a family business. Fred Sr. recites the story of his and Sam Jr.’s experience transitioning from unpaid factory workers to business partners when Sam Sr. changed the company name to Kamaka and Sons (Kamaka Hawaii, Inc. is the newest iteration). “No make junk,” was what Fred Sr. says their father told them, and they never have. In 2000, after 46 years of running the business, Fred Sr. and Sam Jr. were joined by three of their children. Fred Kamaka, Jr. became business manager, Chris Kamaka became production manager, and Casey Kamaka began crafting custom instruments as a master luthier.
Traditionally, bending wood for instruments is a hot, sticky, steamy ordeal, but this new Kamaka generation of entrepreneurs proposed importing the islands’ first Computer Numerical Control router. This allows them to achieve precise, predictable forms with the assistance of advanced technology rather than evaporated water. During the tour, past stacks of drying koa, Fred shows off this latest addition in streamlined manufacturing. “For the first time, we are bending without steam,” he says, pointing to a row of digital clamps on chest-high posts.
Through the years, the family brand has remained the essential ‘ukulele for the serious musician playing the last century of Hawai‘i’s musical canon. There are multinational corporations and small-scale luthiers in the ‘uke market, many who make excellent instruments, but none of them have the same devoted following as Kamaka, a company with strong ties to modern Hawaiian culture.
Back at the front counter, the tour ends where it began. When asked who his favorite ‘ukulele performer is, Fred takes a moment to respond. Before there was the virtuosic Jake Shimabukuro, there was Herb Ohta, Eddie Kamae, and dozens of others whose autographed portraits, faded with time, line the shelf behind the counter. He points to a black and white photo of Eddie Bush from the 1970s, taken around the time when the late multi-genre instrumentalist, who reinterpreted standards from Bina Mossman and Bach, headlined at the Hilton Hawaiian Village showroom. “There have been so many,” he says. “But Eddie—those classical renditions of his—those are my favorite.”
For more information about tours and Kamaka ‘ukulele, visit kamakahawaii.com.
The Celebration: For the company’s centennial anniversary, the Kamaka family has organized a series of events and special product launches to celebrate: a documentary on public broadcasting television, an aloha shirt collaboration with Reyn Spooner, an album featuring Kamaka aficionados, a coffee table book, and a concert. One hundred specialty instruments will also be produced to mark the occasion.