Stories of Aloha by Jocelyn Fujii
[From Spirit of Aloha, February 1997]
Brothers Fred and Sam Kamaka, second and third from left, carry on the ukulele business begun by their father, Sam Kama Sr. Working with them are Sam Jr.’s son Chris, left, and Fred’s son, Fred Jr., right, plus Chris’s brother, Patrick “Casey,” who was not present for the photo.
THE ONE AND ONLY KAMAKA UKULELE
[From Spirit of Aloha, February 1997]
The entrance to Kamaka Hawaii Inc. is awash in the warmth of amber-colored woods and familiar shapes: counters lined with the earliest ukulele ever made, some painted with pineapples. As I enter the modest room, I try to remember a time when I did not associate the name Kamaka with comfort, entertainment and congenial family gatherings. I cannot. I realize that every memory, every association I have ever had with the instrument known as Kamaka, is pleasing: the first ukulele in my family, our first ukulele lessons as children, impromptu music and hula at backyard luau as we were growing up.
Not many could lay claim to such a rare and wonderful legacy that has brought only delight to the people of Hawaii, and now, all over the world. It has been many years since Kamaka began making this stringed instrument that the Portuguese introduced to Hawaii in 1879. The ukulele—“leaping flea”—was adopted wholeheartedly by the musically prolific Hawaiians, thanks in large measure to Samuel Kamaka, founder of the Kamaka ukulele company, and his predecessors.
“My father started this business in 1916,” reminisces Sam Kamaka Jr., who runs the business with his brother, Fred, and their sons. “It was a hobby then. He was making ukulele in his Kaimuki home. He learned by observing the terrific craftsmanship of ukulele makers like Manuel Nunes, who is credited with being the inventor of the instrument. He was from Portugal, and he brought the instruments that were the forerunner of the ukulele. Jonah Kumalae was another of the great manufacturers at the time.”
Unlike the Kamaka business, which is in its third generation, the Kumalae and Nunes families eventually discontinued making instruments.
Sam Kamaka Sr. invented the pineapple ukulele, a departure from the more curvaceous ukulele in the figure-eight shape. “In the old days, the wood had to be bent by hand over a heated pipe,” explains Sam Jr. “The pipe was heated by propane burner or charcoal. It was hard to control. So my father decided to try the oval shape, and because it looked like the pineapples in the fields, they painted the pineapple on it and called it the ‘pineapple ukulele.’”
Koa was traditionally used, he says, although imported mahogany and local monkeypod sustained the business during periods of koa shortage. “Now we have sufficient koa so that we can use it for 99 percent of our instruments.”
Today the Kamaka ukulele, once selling for $2 and $3 apiece, retail for $650 and up. Sam Kamaka Jr.’s son, Patrick “Casey,” and grandson, Dustin, make the custom ukulele (which go for $1,500 and up), and Chris, the oldest son, works as production manager. Fred Kamaka’s son, Fred Jr., is business manager of the operation.
In the Kakaako workshop, dozens of gleaming instruments line the rooms, awaiting the sensitive ear, fine tuning and meticulouls care of Chris, who is also a stand-up bass player with two popular Hawaiian groups, Hookena and Hema Paa. In the final phase of quality control, he puts his ears and fingers to the ukulele and plays each one to feel its vibrations and hear its voice. Roughly 4,000 Kamaka ukulele come through his hands each year and are distributed to music stores throughout Hawaii, California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Japan.
One can only imagine what pleasure these instruments will bring to their new owners and listeners, just as those of us in Hawaii have enjoyed the Kamaka legacy for generations.
Photos by Brett Uprichard
Kamaka Hawaii Inc. recently celebrated its 100th year in business. The prices and statistics in the original store have changed significantly since 1997, and the figures in this article have been updated to reflect those changes. Casey Kamaka, who flies part time for Hawaiian Airlines, was an Aloha Airlines pilot when the company shut down in 2008, and Chris is still a stand-up bass player with Hookena and Hema Paa.
OWN THE COLLECTOR’S EDITION
Stories of Aloha: Homegrown Treasures of Hawai‘i is the acclaimed book by Jocelyn Fujii, a rich compilation of stories from the pages of Spirit of Aloha, with a foreword by Richard Chamberlain, who writes, “To embrace the soul of Hawaii, take Jocelyn’s hand and follow her into the lives of Hawaii’s greatest treasures: her people.” The book is available at www.hulamoonpress.com