Making ukuleles for nearly 100 years
Kamaka Hawaii still strumming along
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.