Below is the headstock that will be on all 2016 models. More info coming as it’s released.
July 19, 2015
Because of the popularity of the four-stringed instrument, a family-run island business has been around for 99 years.
Everyday, employees of the Kamaka factory shape, sand and meticulously craft more than a dozen ukuleles.
But instead of being known for the quantity of instruments it produces, Kamaka is known for its quality.
“Our instruments are made to last generations, passed down to son or daughter and then grandson or daughter. So we have to make our instruments to last a lifetime,” said Fred Kamaka Jr., the business manager for Kamaka Hawaii.
The same could also be said of the business itself. It has been passed down between generations of Kamakas.
“This business was started by my father Sam Kamaka Sr.,” said 90-year old Fred Kamaka Sr. to a group gathered to the tour the factory.
The family business began back in 1916.
“Everything made in Hawaii at the time was high pitched like the violin, or mandolin sound,” said Fred Kamaka Sr.
But Sam Sr. discovered a way to make the little ukulele sound bigger.
“One of the reasons we survived is my grandfather invented the pineapple ukulele, which made his name and his business,” said Fred Kamaka Jr.
For 99 years, Kamaka Hawaii has been making small instruments that make a big impression on musicians.
“the ukulele is a happy instrument. I love the sound and what I can do with it, that includes sharing a part of me through the ukulele,” musician Bryan Tolentino said.
Sharing is a big part of the ukulele’s universal appeal. The instrument is tiny enough to be taken anywhere, and can often be found when groups of local friends get together.
“We grew up that way. Friends after school would pick up the ukulele, learn new songs and share what we know with everyone,” Tolentino said.
Chris Kamaka, the production manager at Kamaka Hawaii, uses his talent as a musician to make sure each ukulele sounds perfect before it leaves the factory.
“My dad and my grandpa always told us the bottom line is the sound of the instrument,” said Chris Kamaka.
He is just one of many workers who have a hand in the construction of the ukuleles. It not only takes two dozen employees but also 4 years.
Blocks of koa wood have to be aged properly before they are cut into the pieces that make up the various instruments.
The finished products include the smaller-sized soprano model with the signature pineapple ukulele, three larger models, 6 and 8 string versions, and custom creations.
Because of the pineapple ukulele’s important part of the company’s past something special is being planned for the 100th anniversary next year.
“We’re looking at making a special limited edition model and it looks like it will be a pineapple ukulele,” Fred Jr. said.
As the Hawaii business prepares to turn a 100, there is already a fourth generation of Kamakas working to make sure there will be ukuleles for many more years to come.
September 23, 2014
I blame the heat. The glorious 35-plus degree Hawaiian temperature that turns my skin the colour of a barbecued pork chop and makes me do things I wouldn’t normally dream of doing, such as wearing a bikini, drinking cocktails adorned with umbrellas and, on one particularly unfortunate occasion, attempting the hula.
But nothing sets the humiliation bar higher than learning how to play the ukulele.
This is how the conversation goes: “Wouldn’t it be cool to learn how to play the ukulele in the spiritual home of the ukulele?” asks my husband.
Me: “Yes, but there’s one slight problem. Neither of us knows what to do with a guitar, letalone a baby guitar.”
Husband: “But that’s the whole point of a lesson. Besides, the ukulele only has four strings, rather than the guitar’s six strings, so technically it should be easier to learn.”
I’m still not convinced but we’re on holiday, it’s a beautiful day – as it nearly always is in this cluster of tropical islands strewn across the Pacific – and an adventure of the cultural kind seems the perfect counterpoint to Honolulu’s sun, surf and sloth. If we’re going to make fools of ourselves, we reason, we might as well do so in spectacular fashion.
So we drive across the island to Kamaka Ukulele, one of Hawaii’s oldest and most respected ukulele factories, where we quickly realise our first mistake. “If you can’t pronounce it, you shouldn’t be playing it,” jokes Fred Kamaka, the 90-year-old son of Sam, who founded the two-storey factory in 1916. It turns out that Hawaii’s distinctive stringed instrument is pronounced “oo-koo-lay-lee” not “you-ka-lay-lee”.
Fred explains how Portuguese immigrants contracted to work on Hawaii’s sugar-cane plantations in 1879 brought the ukulele with them. The locals were captivated by how easy it was to play and carry these melodic instruments, particularly the guitar-playing Sam.
“But dad wanted to incorporate the guitar’s ‘bigger sound’ so he travelled to Europe to learn how these instruments were constructed. He came up with an oval shaped body, which gave him that deeper, richer tone. His friends suggested that it looked like a pineapple and one of them painted a picture of the fruit onto the front.”
And so was born the Pineapple Ukulele, which remains the company’s biggest seller (there are eight other models, including their most expensive, an eight-string monster that Sam designed in 1976 to commemorate the US bicentennial).
These days, the fourth generation of Kamakas has taken over the company reins.
With the vigour of a man half his age, Fred leads us around the factory, showing us how the ukuleles are constructed out of Hawaiian koa wood which is dried and stretched before the mahogany necks and rosewood fingerboards are added.
It wasn’t so long ago that the ukulele was an object of derision, regarded more as an oddity than a serious instrument. But photos of smiling celebrities in the adjacent shop show how the so-called “happy instrument” has come back into vogue with the likes of Lady Gaga, Bill Cosby, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Ziggy Marley and the cast of Glee being the proud owners of Kamaka Ukuleles. “If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place,” says Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele maestro who Rolling Stone magazine called “a hero”.
We’re honoured to have the ukulele flag-bearer as our teacher; he’s normally more booked up than Madonna’s plastic surgeon (it turns out that our tour guide is his cousin who convinced him to give us a lesson).
The first and only solo ukulele recording artist in the world, Jake warms up with a rendition of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. As his fingers fly across the strings, I begin to understand why ukulele means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian.
And then it’s our turn. Jake hands us an instrument and leads us through the basics of how to hold the ukulele, pluck it and strum a few chords to extract the dainty, nimble sound that’s softer than a mandolin and sweeter than a banjo.
I try my best to mimic Jake’s movements but the chap next to me, a guitar player, has bucket loads more talent and puts me off. Somehow I manage to muddle through the Beatles’ Love Me Do, hoping my passable singing voice will make up for my inept playing. It’s surprisingly hard on the pads of my fingers and I’m thankful when Jake stops to tell us about playing for the Queen, jamming with director Francis Ford Coppola and appearing in the Adam Sandler film Just Go With It.
Against my better judgment, I agree to have another try, strumming along to Incy, Wincy Spider. Neither my husband nor I fare much better the second time around, but I can see how addictive it could be.
“The ukulele is a portal that only very happy people pass through,” says Jake. He’s right: no matter how bad you are, it’s impossible to play a ukulele without smiling. I know, I’ve tried …
The writer was a guest of the O’ahu Visitors Bureau, gohawaii.com/nz/oahu.
– © Fairfax NZ News
Trinimon, over at Ukulele Underground, posted this video he made of Fred Kamaka Sr. during the Kamaka Factory tour. What I loved most about it were the moments you could see the love and joy Fred has for the instruments, and the history of this fine company.
This has shown up on YouTube, wanted to repost it here. A wonderful documentary on Kamaka Ukulele.
Correction: In the April 26 MidWeek “Old Friend” interview with Sam Kamaka Jr., it was incorrectly stated that Freddie Kamaka Jr. is the son of Sam Kamaka Jr., when in fact he is a nephew. Sam Kamaka Jr. does not have a son named Sam. MidWeek regrets these errors.
Sam Kamaka Jr., the heir to Hawaii’s “ukulele throne,” is enjoying his retirement years. He’s spending more time with family but still keeping a watchful an eye on the business his father started 90 years ago.
“It’s nice to know the ukulele is still popular. I can’t keep up with all the orders that come in,” says Kamaka, the friendly Hawaiian icon who gracedMidWeek’s cover back in August 1989.
“The ukulele has always been our bread and butter.” These days Kamaka spends most of his time at his family’s home in Kaneohe, where “my dad bought property in the ‘30s. We’re still here,” he laughs.
When he’s not at home, Kamaka works with sons Chris, Sam and Freddie Jr. at Kamaka Hawaii Inc., the ukulele company famous for the pineapple-shaped ukulele. In 1916, Sam Kamaka Sr. started the company in the basement of his Kaimuki home. To this day, the same Big Island wood is still used to manufacturer Hawaii’s most treasured musical instrument.
“It’s beautiful wood (and) has good resonance. It takes a lot of patience and time to air-dry everything. Every inch of lumber takes a minimum of one year (to dry),” Kamaka explains.
On March 18, Kamaka Hawaii Inc. celebrated its 90th anniversary with a gala at the Hawaii Convention Center, featuring many Island entertainers, including Jake Shimabukuro, Aunty Genoa Keawe, Benny Chong, Bryan Tolentino and others.
“My oldest son, Freddie Jr., is still active in the business, he manages the office. Chris is so busy with his music, (but) works at the ukulele company in his free time,” says the proud dad. “As long as they’re happy with what they’re doing. It’s been a tradition in the family since my dad got started. It’s been a fabulous journey.”
Chris Kamaka shows off his musical talents playing the bass and fiddle, instruments his dad says he played during his time in the military. Kamaka’s youngest, Kelly, works as a pilot for different airlines, and Dad has made sure “he knows all about the ukulele, too.”
Most of the women in Kamaka’s family are “all are involved with raising children, (but) they love the music of the ukulele,” he says.
In the future for Kamaka Hawaii Inc., Kamaka sees the need to maybe move the company from its current location at 550 South St. in Honolulu.
“Eventually, we’ll have to relocate,” he says. “That’s going to be the next project for the boys.”
– Kerry Miller