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Meet the Hawai‘i Family That Makes the World’s Most Famous ‘Ukulele

Kamaka Hawai‘i celebrates 100 years of producing internationally renowned ‘ukulele.


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Kamaka family.
Kamaka through the ages: From left, front row, Sam Kamaka Jr., Fred Kamaka Sr., second row, Chris Kamaka, Fred Kamaka Jr., Christopher Kamaka, Casey Kamaka. And, in the picture frame, Sam Kamaka Sr.
Photos: Elyse Butler Mallams; Historic Photos: Courtesy of Kamaka Hawai‘i 

 

Second generation Kamakas
Second generation Kamakas: Fred Sr., left, and Sam Jr., right, present their patented pineapple ‘ukulele.

One hundred years in, Kamaka Hawai‘i is busier than ever. The ‘ukulele itself seems to be everywhere, too, showing up in all kinds of music around the world. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder’s solo album of 16 original songs and covers, all featuring Vedder playing the ‘ukulele, won a Grammy. “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz and Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” flooded national radio airwaves, both songs built on now-instantly recognizable ‘ukulele riffs. 

 

This resurgence in popularity for the little instrument that could—in everything from major studio albums to appearances in film and television to countless YouTube videos—has endured for more than a decade. And, for the first time, in perhaps ever, it appears that the ‘ukulele has earned its stripes (to go with the strings).

 

This wasn’t always the case. “There was a recession in the 1980s and, at that point, we were really scraping by,” says Fred Kamaka Jr., business manager and third-generation Kamaka ‘ukulele craftsman. “The Mainland companies stopped producing them. We never laid anybody off and we never stopped production, but we had ‘ukulele in boxes sitting everywhere because people weren’t buying them.” Thirty years ago, Kamaka ‘Ukulele’s Japanese market was the only thing keeping the company going. Today, the kama‘āina company operates with a two-month backorder at all times, producing close to 4,000 ‘ukulele a year. 

 

Display room

Display room of Kamaka ‘Ukulele + Guitar Works on King St., June 1930.

 

Perhaps nowhere is the legacy of this instrument better understood than at Kamaka Hawai‘i, this year marking a century in business for the internationally renowned company. It has a legacy of craftsmanship, while still adapting to new trends and technology. Today, Kamaka produces ‘ukulele much in the same way it did 100 years ago: a single instrument at a time.

 

Sam Sr.

Sam Kamaka Sr.

 

In 1916, Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka Sr. began crafting koa ‘ukulele by hand in the basement of his Kaimukī home. He and seven of his friends originally wanted to build drums, but found a bigger market making ‘ukulele. To better understand how string instruments were built, Sam Sr. traveled around the world for five years, to Europe and South America, before returning to Hawai‘i in 1921. Here, he opened a shop on King Street —“Kamaka ‘Ukulele and Guitar Works”— and made a name for himself as a top-quality ‘ukulele producer.

Pineapple logo

 

Sam Sr. also designed a new ‘ukulele body from scratch, taking knowledge from his voyages overseas. Using an oval instead of a traditional figure eight, Sam Sr.’s new prototype ‘ukulele shape looked “like a pineapple,” according to his friends; one of them, an artist, even painted an image of a pineapple on the front. Sam Sr. embraced the title and patented the “Pineapple ‘Ukulele” in 1928.

 

Sam Sr. had two sons, Sam Jr. and Fred Sr., who had both worked at the shop since they were small. They had gone on to separate careers, but, when Sam Sr. became ill in 1952, he offered them the family business, on one condition. “Our father asked us if we wanted to take over the business and make ‘ukulele. But he had a warning,” recalls Fred Kamaka Sr. “He said that ‘if [we decided to] make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.’ We had to make the highest quality ‘ukulele—or not at all.”

 

“He said, ‘If [we decided to] make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.’ We had to make the highest quality ‘ukulele—or not at all.”— Fred Kamaka Sr.

 

The brothers agreed. The following December, in 1953, Sam Sr. passed away. He had been producing koa ‘ukulele by hand for more than 40 years. That responsibility shifted to Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. (who expanded the factory and moved to their current location on South Street), as well as their children—Fred Jr. (Fred Sr.’s son), Chris and Casey (Sam Jr.’s sons)—and grandchildren, Dustin and Christopher. 

 

Sam Jr. and Fred Sr.

Young Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. playing ‘ukulele.

 

“There aren’t a lot of businesses that make it past the second generation. We’ve been lucky that we’ve had three generations of family willing to keep things going, and now we’re heading into the fourth generation of Kamakas working at the company. And you don’t want to be the generation that messes it up!” Fred Jr. says, with a laugh.

 

Luckily they haven’t, with Fred Jr. as business manager, Chris as production manager, and Casey in research and development (as well as a side gig: pilot for Hawaiian Airlines). They’re the ones who’ve figured out ways to adapt Kamaka Hawai‘i for the 21st century, with all the changes that new technologies have brought to their industry. Changes like the invention of the electronic tuner, which required Kamaka Hawai‘i to install angled, compensated saddles on all of their ‘ukulele to replace straight saddles that everyone previously used to tune by ear, but now didn’t have to. Or the addition of an all-metal geared key to allow for perfect tuning, but which wasn’t previously possible on a smaller ‘ukulele without an awkward-looking side key.

 

Ukulele sanding

Photo: Aaron Yoshino

 

This commitment to quality has allowed Kamaka to thrive, garnering support from big players in the industry, while remaining an approachable instrument for beginners to pluck. Many, including Hawai‘i virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, consider Kamaka to be the best in the business.

 

“There’s no other manufacturer in the world that has more experience making ‘ukulele than the Kamaka family. The quality and sound of their instruments is unmatched,” says Shimabukuro. “Growing up, whenever we heard an ‘ukulele on traditional Hawaiian records or on the radio, that iconic sound was always a Kamaka. It’s the equivalent of a Stradivarius violin; [Kamaka] is the standard that all other builders and manufacturers strive for.”

 

Kamaka Ukulele worker

Photo: Aaron Yoshino

 

A decade ago, Shimabukuro found international prominence when his ‘ukulele cover of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became one of YouTube’s first viral videos. Shimabukuro’s performance demonstrated the instrument’s versatility in a way the world had never seen or heard before. He recognized the magic from his first ‘ukulele lesson at age 4.

 

 

Kamaka Ukulele Factory Interior
Photo: Aaron Yoshino

“If I pluck [an ‘ukulele] string with my index finger, it sounds different from if I plucked it with another finger. You’d think the tone shouldn’t change, but when the instrument is made so well, it’s that sensitive. That’s what the Kamaka ‘ukulele are like,” says Shimabukuro. “When I was a kid, I’d save every dollar, literally every penny that I earned working summer jobs, so I could buy a Kamaka ‘ukulele. I love their instruments; I think the world of them.”

 

Fred Jr. attributes a lot of the ‘ukulele’s current popularity to Shimabukuro’s performance and the internet at large. “The ‘ukulele was first popular in the 1920s and the Depression-era ‘Tin Pan Alley’ days, then again through the war era in the ’40s and ’50s. For a while, the only time people heard the instrument was from the eccentric Tiny Tim, before the Hawaiian Renaissance in the ’70s with Eddie Kamae and the [Ka‘au] Crater Boys and those guys. Jake made the instrument popular again for a new generation,” says Fred Jr. “In that YouTube video, Jake showed people that the ‘ukulele wasn’t a toy or a novelty, it was a serious musical instrument. He helped take it to the next level.”

 

“When I was a kid, I’d save literally every penny I earned working summer jobs so I could buy a Kamaka ‘ukulele.”— Jake Shimabukuro

 

Artists that include George Harrison, Bruno Mars, Adele, The Eagles, Jake Shimabukuro and, yes, even Eddie Vedder (two of the seven ‘ukulele Vedder used to record his Grammy-winning album were Kamakas), helped to put the ‘ukulele on the map for audiences that were either unfamiliar with the ‘ukulele or unfamiliar with it as a professional instrument. There is now a global audience for the ‘ukulele with trade shows and festivals as far off as France, Canada, Germany and the Middle East, attracting thousands of performers and enthusiasts each year to hear the ‘ukulele play everything from Beethoven to Radiohead. We’ve come a long way from tiptoeing through the tulips with Tiny Tim.

 

Even after a century, Kamaka, too, is bigger than ever: To celebrate its centennial, Kamaka Hawai‘i hosted a special ‘ukulele concert at the annual National Association of Music Merchants convention in Anaheim, California this past January, released a studio album of ‘ukulele artists performing both classic covers and new songs, created a special series of aloha shirts designed by Reyn Spooner, and published a coffee table book documenting 100 years of producing ‘ukulele in Hawai‘i. As 2016 comes to a close, Fred Jr. and the rest of the Kamaka Hawai‘i team look ahead to the next century.

 

Kamaka ukulele display

 

“We’ve been saying for years that we’re going to move. We’re one year into a five-year lease, but construction is heading this way and, eventually, we’ll have to look for another place to move the factory to, I think,” Fred Jr. says. Kamaka Hawai‘i has been on South Street since 1958. It’s been a fixture of the neighborhood, offering free tours of the factory Tuesday through Friday, as much as it has been a fixture of the ‘ukulele industry. Outside, on the sidewalk, is a bright red badge of honor: A King Kamehameha historical marker guards the front entrance of the shop.

 

“Yeah, we’re definitely taking that with us,” laughs Fred Jr. “You can’t leave the past behind.

 


 

Kamaka Through the Years

 

1916

Kamaka ‘Ukulele and Guitar Works established at Sam Sr.’s Fifth Avenue home in Kaimukī.

 

1921

The company moves to 1814 S. King St.


Kamaka Ukulele S. King St.

 

1928

Sam Sr. patents his design of the pineapple ‘ukulele.


Pineapple ukulele

 

1945

Kamaka and Sons Enterprises is established.

 

1953

Sam Sr. passes away and Sam Jr. takes over business.

 

1958

The company moves to 550 South St. in Kaka‘ako.


Kamaka Ukulele Kakaako

 

1959

Sam Jr. designs the six-string tenor model (Statehood) ‘ukulele.

 

1965

Sam Jr. and Herb Ohta design the bell-shaped model “Ohta-San.”

 

1968

Kamaka Hawai‘i Inc. is established.


Kamaka Hawaii

 

1970

Sam Jr. designs the long-neck ‘ukulele.


Kamaka Ukulele gold label

 

1972

Fred Sr. retires from the military and enters business full time.

 

1976

Sam Jr. designs the eight-string tenor model (Bicentennial) ‘ukulele.

 

1999

The state House of Representatives passes House Resolution No. 99 recognizing Kamaka Hawai‘i for its world-class ‘ukulele.

 

2006

Casey Kamaka designs the Jake Shimabukuro Signature Model for an anniversary special.

 

2007

Kamaka Hawai‘i Inc. featured on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow.

 

2010s

Kamaka adds an all-metal geared tuning key.


Kamaka Ukulele metal tuning key

 

2012

Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. are inducted into the ‘Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum in Rhode Island.

 

2014

Kamaka Hawai‘i Inc. inducted into the Hawaiian Music Hall of Fame.


Kamaka Ukulele new label

 


 

Origins

When Portuguese immigrants Joao Fernandes, Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espirito Santo stepped off the SS Ravenscrag sailing ship in August 1879, they had come to Honolulu to work as laborers on Hawai‘i’s booming sugar cane plantations. Before long, they were known for a different reason: their masterful strumming of the small, guitarlike Portuguese machete, braguinha, rajão and the timple, which they had brought with them and were now performing with  nightly in impromptu jam sessions for an ever-growing crowd of locals.

 

“The musicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels,” the Hawaiian Gazette reported in a paper dated Sept. 3, 1879. The little instruments grew to such popularity that Dias, Nunes and Santo, talented cabinetmakers by trade, all opened their own shops by 1886.

 

The ‘Ukulele’s Predecessors

Ukulele predecessors

Illustrations: Kelsey Ige

 

The origin of the name “‘ukulele” says players’ fast-moving fingers resembled jumping fleas (the literal translation of ‘ukulele). Another potential origin: King Kalākaua’s assistant chamberlin, Edward Purvis, who was nicknamed ‘Ukulele due to his small size and lively personality. And Queen Lili‘uokalani once described the ‘ukulele as meaning “the gift that came here,” with “uku,” which means gift, and “lele,” which means to come.

 


 

Learn How to Play the ‘Ukulele 

Hear! Hear! Watch ‘ukulele stars play local favorites on a Kamaka. 

 

Herb Ohta Jr. 

‘Ukulele star Herb Ohta Jr. plays “Sanoe” by Queen Lydia Kamakaeha Lili‘uokalani and “Hi‘ilawe.” 

 

 

Jake Shimabukuro

‘Ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro teaches basic ‘ukulele chords.

 

 

Taimane Gardner

‘Ukulele star Taimane Gardner teaches a tremolo strumming technique. 

 

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