Fretboard Journal #10 Summer 2008 – “Pride and Pineapples”

This article was originally published in the Summer 2008 Fretboard Journal, issue #10.  Copyright © 2005 – 2011, Occasional Publishing, Inc.

Pride and Pineapples

A robust family tradition is still the driving force behind Kamaka ukuleles

By Harvey Leonard Gotliffe

             Back in the 1930’s, my father had courted my mother by playing love songs on his worn ukulele, in a canoe on a small Michigan lake.  Fifty years later, I was moseying around the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu, and I became entranced by the music being made by a South Pacific islander who was strumming away on his ukulele as his raft floated by.

             “What kind of ukulele is that?” I naively asked.  “It’s a Kamaka,” he replied.  “It’s the only one I would ever play.”  I then inquired about where they were made; he gestured and replied, “On South Street in Honolulu.”

             I hurriedly left the Center and headed directly to Kamaka’s world headquarters.  If you blink, you could easily miss 500 South St., an unobtrusive building that is the home of the finest ukulele builders in the world. (I drove past it at first, as many did then and do so today.)

             I first met Sam Kamaka Jr. and his younger brother, Fred Sr., in 1988.  They were running the enterprise founded in 1916 by their father, Samuel Kaiali’ili’i Kamaka, who started the one-man business in the basement of his Kaimuki home, when it carried the unpretentious name, Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works.  Each Kamaka ukulele built since then has had to meet the highest standards of perfection, as does most everything connected with Kamaka Hawaii Inc.


                 WHEN FRED KAMAKA JR. throroughly researched his family’s business history, he found no verifiable evidence that his grandfather, Samuel Sr., ever worked for the legendary Manuel Nunes — dispelling a widely held story that he’d learned his craft working for that ukulele making pioneer.  Sam Sr. may have observed Nunes at work, but he learned instrument making most everywhere else, according to Sam Jr., 86, and Fred Sr., 83.

             As the story goes, their Maui-born father, who played guitar, violin and upright bass, was stranded with his brother in New York in 1910 after a failed musical venture.  Rather than head home, Sam Sr., then 20 years old, shipped out on a freighter and traveled the world for five years.  Wherever the ship landed — in North Africa, the Mediteranean and Latin American — he would listen to the indigenous music and observe how people made their musical instruments, diligently learning how to make the best.

             When he started his business in 1916, Sam Sr. incorporated what he had learned into making guitars.  He designed a “Concert” guitar that was larger and deeper-sounding than the ones other builders were making, but unfortunately, it proved to be too bulky and it had a fret design that was too complicated for the island musicians.  Yet, he noticed that about a dozen other local instrument makers were producing ukuleles — and doing well — so he created the first Kamaka uke: a soprano model built in the Spanish style, with a label on the butt joint that read “K. Kamaka Honolulu Hawaii.”  Those other makers are long gone.

             Ten years later, Sam Sr. introduced a pineapple shaped ukulele, which produced a deep, resonantly mellow sound, distinct from the traditional high-pitch, figure-eight instruments.  (Always willing to share his knowledge, he explained to his ukulele-making friends how to adjust the shape and thickness of their own creations so that they’d produce a similarly enchanting sound.)  In 1921, the year that Sam Jr. was born, Sam Sr. built his first ukulele factory at 1814 S. King St. and moved everything out of his basement workshop.  Three years later, the year that Fred Sr. arrived, Sam and his wife, May, bought several acres in Kaneohe; the family home was built in 1930 and remains a gathering place today.

             The two Kamaka sons were in elementary school when they were introduced to the uke business.

                       “Dad never pushed us during this time,” Sam Jr. remembers.  “He’d bring ukuleles home to sand, but he didn’t want us to be around machinery.”  By 5, Fred Sr. was already gluing things together.  “If I burned myself, it was good training,” he says with a grimace.  “There were no child labor laws.  You just worked with your father.  He was a warm man who wanted us to stay busy.”  Even when Sam and Fred were kids, their father had strongly emphasized his philosophy of only producing instruments of the highest quality.  “Everything had to be correct; if not, destroy part of it,” Fred Sr. says.  “You learned to do it the right way.”

             The boys’ mother and aunts were entertainers, so the sweet sounds of Hawaiian music were always around the home.  “When I was growing up,” Sam Jr. recalls, “I carried the ukuleles of my aunts.”  Mother May was the hula teacher for her sisters’ troupes, and she also taught second grade.  “Father made sure that I was doing my homework,” he says, a warm, ever-present smile on his face.

             In 1945, the business became Kamaka and Sons Enterprises, and Sam Sr. told his two young sons, “If you ever decide to take over the family business, don’t ruin our name by making junk.”  Both sons served during World War II, and after they graduated from Washington State University, Fred Sr. pursued an Army career and Sam Jr. went on to Oregon State University to seek a doctorate in entomology.

             In 1952, an ailing Sam Sr. went into semi-retirement and moved his equipment back to his farm in Waianae.  The following year, Sam Jr. left his studies and came home to care for his seriously ill father.  When Sam Sr. passed away in December of 1953, his son had planned to stay only one year, repairing Kamaka ukuleles for his father’s customers.

             Although Sam Jr. had learned the basics of ukulele making from his father, he would have much more to absorb in order to take over the family business.  As a former doctoral student, he was not averse to extensive research, and so he started by invading the library.  “I read all the books on guitars and ukuleles,” he explains.  “I went to the old people and others making instruments as individuals doing repairs.  They inspired me to keep going.”

             In 1954, Sam Jr. restored the factory at Kamaka’s original location at 1814 S. King St., and in 1959, the company expanded to its current 5,000-sq.ft. locale.  That same year, Sam designed the six-string Lili’u model to celebrate Hawaii’s statehood, and he named it to honor Queen Lili’uokalani.  The family enterprise became Kamaka Hawaii Inc. in 1968.

             The Kamaka family tradition has always been to let each generation decide on their own life paths.  Sam Sr. allowed his two sons that freedom, and similarly, Sam Jr. never pushed his sons Chris, Casey and Kelly into the business.  Yet, Chris who graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1981 with a liberal studies degree, is now in charge of production.  “He was very patient with me, never forced me to work here,” Chris says of his father, who’d taught him the ropes.  “We’d come here to sweep up.  It actually grew on me, and I really enjoy doing it.”

             Casey agrees: “As kids, we started by doing small jobs.  Dad trained me and was a super boss and taught us by how he worked.  As I got older, I moved around and did everything.”  Casey, a pilot for Aloha Airlines, was pleased that the door was always open to be a part of the Kamaka family business.  He had worked in production there every summer – before he took up an interest in flying, (“Dad never pushed me.  I always came back.”)  Today, Casey is involved with Kamaka’s instrument design; to compensate when his flying schedule skews the work week, we can sometime be found on the premises at night and on weekends.  (When the need exists, you may also find Chris and Fred Jr. there too.)

             Sam Jr.’s third son, Kelly, is now a first officer with Hawaiian Airlines.  He first came to the Kamaka business when he was about 10, putting on decals and rolling strings, trying to earn some extra summertime money.  After he graduated from Northern Arizona University in 1991 (degree in exercise science), he was doing ukulele repairs.  Kelly had also worked in production during the following years, but his inter-island flying career took precedence.  He hadn’t been around in three years before he came back in early 2007 to lend a hand or two working part time.  He’d wondered what kind of reception he would get, but it has worked out so far.  (“I’m happy to be here,” he says.  “I want to keep connected with the family and always try to help out.”)  Kelly works 15 to 20 hours a week with his nephew Dustin on the Ohta San model.

             Meanwhile, Fred Sr.’s military career had brought his family to many locales, but when he retired from the military in 1972, he joined his brother as the general manager in charge of business.  His son, Fred Jr., also worked at Kamaka as a kid – putting on keys – but he had no intention of joining the family business.  In 1987, he received a degree in mechanical engineering at Brown University in Rhode Island, about as far away from Waikiki as you can get without crossing another ocean.  A year later, at his mother’s urging, Fred Jr. joined the family’s traditional ukulele-making business, setting up a computer system that has moved the business end of Kamaka Hawaii Inc. competitively into the 21st century.

             “If I knew I was coming back, I would have majored in industrial engineering,” Fred Jr. notes.  “I was really glad to come back to the family business.  It’s a small business, and there are no bureaucracies.”

             But it is a business, and Fred Sr. ran it, they somehow managed to work things out between them.  Today, however, they just listen while their sons decide the future of the company. Primarily, the family defers to Fred Jr. when it comes to business decisions, to Chris regarding production and to Casey for design issues, but there are times when working with family can be a wee bit touchy – but only rarely.

              “We do end up bumping heads when there is no boss,” Fred Jr. says.  “We’re lucky to have family working hard and keeping the quality up.  We may disagree, but all of us have the same goal.”

             Adds cousin Casey: “Working with my family is not the easiest, and we have moments.  But we all look at what’s best for the business.  We have family spats, but we know what’s important.  Everyone puts ideas out, and we hash them out.”  Casey’s brother Chris agrees.  “At decision time, myself, Fred Jr., and Casey talk to different people.  We get along well enough and have a working relationship and good communications.”

             The family tradition extended to the fourth generation in 1999 when Chris’ son Dustin became part of the working clan.  He now does some repairs, but he’s also learning the art of creating custom models from “the mastermind,” his uncle Casey.  Like the previous generations, Dustin started out young.  “Dad had me sanding at 5 or 6,” he recalls.  “I liked to come in and make toys and bracelet rings out of koa.  In the Cub Scouts, it was good to have the shop for projects.  I got my first ukulele in the first grade.”

             Dustin easily reiterates the Kamaka mantra.  “While there may be a lot of other good ukulele makers out there,” he says, “we have the consistency of generation after generation.  We keep getting better and better.”  He attributes much of that to what he has learned from his grandfather, Sam Jr. “I watched when he was doing repairs,” Dustin explains.  “I enjoyed when he was around.  Wish he were around more.”

             Chris beams when he talks about his son: “When I see how much knowledge he’s gained – seeing him enjoying doing it, seeing his pride – it makes me happy.”  Like his uncles Casey and Kelly, Dustin has a pilot’s license, but has no plans on flying commercially and leaving the family business.  “If I am gone,” he laughs, “everything will fall apart.”

             The positive generation-to-generation connections originally fostered by Sam Sr. – and strengthened by his sons and grandsons – have ensured that the family always stayed tight.

             “We grew up together, like neighbors,” Casey fondly recalls.  “We don’t know any different.”

            THE PROCESS FROM log to ukulele is a long one.  Only after the logs have been selected, cut and dried does the ukulele building begin.  Casey Kamaka’s efficacious eye can quickly discern which log will eventually become a very special musical instrument.  Today, he occasionally uses his role as an Aloha Airlines captain to hitch a ride to the Big Island in order to search for koa wood that will become Kamaka ukuleles in the future.

             “Koa wood is like a week,” he laughs. “Have to keep the cows from eating it.”

             Casey and young ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro have developed a mutual admiration for each other.  Shimabukuro recalls a particular phone conversation he’d had with an excited Casey.  “Jakey, I’ve found your next ukulele,” Casey said.  Then he paused.  “It will be ready in four years.”  Shimabukuro, of course, has nothing but respect for Casey and the wood he selects. (“He just knows.”)

             Casey designs Shimabukuro’s performance ukuleles, and the maestro considers the finished creations to be akin to fine art.  “I leave it to them,” Shimabukuro says.  They are the masters and they keep outdoing themselves.  Their ideas and craftsmanship keep getting better.”  Since he has always played a Kamaka, Shimabukuro’s pronouncements may be a bit biased.  “The first was my mother’s when I was 4,” he remembers.  “I have always been happy with them.”  Shimabukuro also praises Chris for the work he does on the production end.  “I can’t believe that Chris personally checks every single ukulele,” Shimabukuro adds.  “I so admire them.  Even with backorders, they won’t release any ukulele until it has been thoroughly checked.”

             Chris’ grandfather, Sam Sr., had made it a rule: All ukuleles need a final check by a family member.  So, Chris spends 10 to 15 minutes proing over each of the 20 ukuleles completed every working day before they are ready to be called Kamakas.  He checks the strings to make sure the intonation is good; he looks for blemishes on the finish; he makes sure that all of the frets are level.  (When Chris checks the strings, you may hear him singing along with his strumming.  It’s a natural segue for Chris, who plays traditional Hawaiian songs with his group, Ho’okena.)

             If a ukulele doesn’t meet with his approval, it goes back to the shop to be corrected.  For Chris, the word case scenario is wood rot, and if perchance, in a very, very rare instance, he completely rejects a ukulele, it doesn’t stray far.  “The family youngsters get them,” he says with a smile.  “There’s always instruments laying around the Kamaka houses.”

             The Kamaka you purchase may have also had a final check by Jake Shimabukuro, who drops by and helps out Chris whenever he’s in town.  (And if Chris gets a moment to sit, he’s now doing so comfortably ensconced in a brand new leather chair that his pal bought him as a way of saying thanks for a guick repair on one of Shimabukuro’s concert ukuleles.)

             Among the newest Kamaka ukuleles is the limited-editon Jake Shimabukuro signature model.  It could have been bought for $5,500, with case and pickup – but only if you were lucky.  The Kamakas held a lottery to determine who would win the right to purchase one of the 100 models that will eventually be built (by Casey and Dustin), and the response was so overwhelming that not everyone who wanted one was able to get one.  Shimabukuro picked the winning names himself and will personally test each one; he is delightfully pleased.  “There are lots of good makers,” he admits.  “However, Kamaka makes the best ukuleles – the most consistent, the prettiest.  Kamaka captures the essence of what the ukulele sound should be.”

              Shimabukuro is an unabashedly loyal fan of the Kamakas, who build every one of his instruments.  (In the liner notes for his Gently Weeps CD, he wrote, “Chris and Casey, you inspire me with every new instrument.”)  However, for Shimabukuro, his relationship with the Kamaka family is far deeper than merely a professional one.  Sometimes, when Shimabukuro is on tour, Casey Kamaka will find a voicemail from the ukulele wiz, left from some faraway time zone.  “Listen to this,” Shimabukuro will lovingly implore, offering a few riffs on his Kamaka to show off some newly devised technique.

            “The Kamakas are my second family,” Shimabukuro says.  “I would call, and Uncle Fred would answer the phone.  Then I would talk with Uncle Sam.”

            Longtime ukulele virtuoso Herb Ohta Sr. also has a Kamaka uke that carries his name, a top-of-the-line concert bell-shaped deluxe.  Sam Jr. designed the “Ohta-san” model (with Ohta’s help) in 1965, and when Ohta’s son was 3 years old, Sam Jr. made a ukulele for him as a gift.  “I always had a connection with the Kamakas because Dad and family are really close,” Herb Jr. says.  “I feel related in a way.”  Although Herb Sr., or Ohta San, now plays a small-necked Martin in concert, he fondly remembers his first ukulele.

            “Mother had a Kamaka in the house,” he recalls.  “Every house had a Kamaka.”

            Ohta San has great respect for Sam Kamaka Jr. as a humanitarian.  Thanks to the inspiration of his wife, Gerry, Kamaka hired hearing-impaired workers through the years to fine-tune the ukulele bodies by thumping them and feeling the vibrations with their fingers.  When two of those craftsman recently retired after more than four decades at Kamaka, that left George Morita as the last of the hearing-impaired workers.  (When I greeted him with a “good morning” in sign language, it immediately elicited a broad smile.  Then, without missing a beat, Morita went back to pounding frets into the bridge of the ukulele he was working on, blissfully unaware of the creative clamor he was making.)

            The company has had a long involvement with the Hawaiian community through a myriad of efforts.  In one way or another, they’ve sponsored the Ukulele Festival Hawaii for more than 30 years.  They also provide discounted ukuleles at wholesaler costs to charitable organizations for fundraising.  In addition, they offer factory tours for up to 60 elementary school students and for the general public.

            FRED SR. WISTFULLY remembers when he and Sam Jr. started running the family business – and their young sons just hung around, sweeping or making toys for themselves.

            “I now work for our sons,” he says.  “When my brother and I turned over the business to them, we told them, ‘Remember, you are using the family name.’”  It was almost the same words their father, Sam Sr., had said to them years and years ago.

            Today, seemingly every inch of the 5,000-sq. ft. facility is filled beyond capacity – starting with the downstairs rack behind the display case that’s overloaded with ukuleles patiently waiting three or four months for repairs.  Behind the building, koa wood is forced to dry outside behind a locked metal gate topped by barbed wire, susceptible to the whims of the weather.  (Kamaka Hawaii wants to double their space when their current 50-year lease is up this year.)

            Inside, the factory hums, and the line moves smoothly.  Fred Jr. did his homework and found a way to make the process more efficient without losing its friendly, hands-on touch.  “I first asked Dad why they did things the way that they did, and he replied, ‘They’ve been doing it that way for years,” he recalls.  “First, they fought innovation, and then saw how well things worked out.”  But even with a smoother-flowing line and approximately 20 talented workers producing 4,200 fine instruments a year, they are still two months behind on music-store orders.  You stand a better chance of acquiring a Kamaka by walking into their own crowded showroom and trying to buy one over the counter, but that rare occasion occurs only when somebody cancels his or her order.

            Ideally, Kamaka would like to increase their present capacity from 20 to 28 ukuleles a day.  It would greatly help to have a climate-controlled facility that would allow them to work regardless of the weather – and not have to worry every time a rainy (albeit rainbow-hued) day causes the humidity to rise and the gluing and staining efficiency to fall.  Chris, speaking for the family, says, “We would like to increase the number, but definitely without sacrificing quality.  It’s exciting and scary with expansion coming up.”

            For now, every Tuesday through Friday, precisely at 10:30 a.m., Fred Sr. waits behind the counter to conduct another factory tour.  Before he leads the group through the factory maze, he starts out in the lobby proudly pointing to the portrait on the wall of his father, Sam Sr., the seventh person enshrined in the Ukulele Hall of Fame.  After he takes down a photograph of the old King Street shop, he reaches into the glass display case and shows the enraptured tour members old ukuleles, including a 1920s pineapple model.

            He talks about celebrities who have owned Kamakas (long before Jake Shimabukuro was born), mentioning radio and television personality Arthur Godfrey, among others.  Godfrey once visited the establishment when he was in Hawaii, and Sam Sr. built four tenor models for him; in turn, Sam Sr. was on Godfrey’s radio program twice.  Kamaka has also created instruments for an eclectic mix of celebrities from Laurel and Hardy to astronaut Scott Carpenter.

            However, the majority of Kamaka’s nine models end up in the hands of more down-to-earth people, like the husky young Hawaiian on this Friday morning’s tour who tenderly cradles his 2-year-old son in his huge arms.  (“He’s got a toy ukulele at home,” he tells me.  “I’ll be getting a Kamaka for him soon.”)

            Fred Jr., who labels himself as the “money man,” looks up from his computerized corner off the cramped main lobby and watches the people come in.  “I’m always frustrated,” he says about running the business, but that all changes when he sees the tour group pass by.  “I get the feeling back.  We make people happy.”

            Fred Sr. is happy to conduct tours.  “It takes the burden off our sons,” he says.  “I get lots of satisfaction helping kids.  It’s helping the music industry.”  Whenever an article appears in the local papers of a television station features Kamaka Hawaii, Fred Sr. will be ready when the owner of an older Kamaka instrument inevitably comes by to identify its construction date.

            Nowadays, his brother, Sam Jr., is an infrequent visitor.  He comes in to help if the boys have any questions – or to patiently respond to writers who want to learn more about the Kamaka history.  His new profession is as a chauffeur for his wife, Gerry, but he has no worries about his future.  He’s more than confident that the Kamaka tradition will live on with his sons, nephew and grandson.

            Kamaka Hawaii Inc, celebrated their 90th anniversary in 2006.  “It’s been a beautiful journey for me, a fabulous journey,” Sam Jr. says, and his outlook for the future of the company is equally positive.  “My sons and my brother’s son will be carrying on to the 100th anniversary for sure….I want to inspire my boys to carry on the family tradition and produce instruments that people love.”

            His brother, Fred Sr., also believes that the third generation is doing very well.  “Whatever they do, they are really doing a good job,” he admits.  “They are keeping their grandfather’s standard of quality.  I don’t have to come in and check on them.”

            While the third-generation men currently run the business, the female Kamaka contingent has always been quite involved as well.  Katy, Polly, Malia and Jenny, daughters of Sam Jr., and Martina and Heidi, daughters of Fred Sr., all worked in the factory growing up – rolling strings, sanding, stringing, tuning and selling ukuleles over the counter.  Dustin now represents the fourth generation of ukulele-making Kamakas.

            “The bottom line is still [the] sound,” says Chris Kamaka.  “The ukulele should sound good, be easy to play, comfortable – and [shouldn’t] hurt.”  He takes great pride in the family’s reputation.  “Whenever I talked with musicians and saw what pleasure they had playing a Kamaka, and the years of satisfaction they had, it gave me a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.”

“Whenever people ask me about it,” adds brother Kelly, “I tell them how proud I am of our Kamaka name and tradition.”  Brother Casey feels the same way: “Just watching others play our instruments with pride, and creating the best you can make, and knowing that your family name’s on it – it’s part of the soul of the instrument.”

            Fred Jr. puts it more succinctly: “We’re a family out to make the best ukulele in the world.”

            In our somewhat chaotic and unpredictable world, it’s reassuring to know that at least one steadfast tradition will be upheld for generations to come.


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