I’ve got my heavy windbreaker on and my tan is fading, but the highlight of our recent trip to Hawaii burns in my mind and heart.
Fred Kamaka, left, son of Kamaka Hawaii's founder Samuel Kamaka, Sr., shows Rick a $5,000 custom model designed for ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuru.
The cruise ship docked at Aloha Tower, an easy walk to a modest landmark in downtown Honolulu called Kamaka Hawaii. We went there to glimpse behind the scenes of the famous 96-year-old ukulele factory. Rick has a passion for musical instruments and has played many, but his current instrument of choice is the ukulele. And every ukulele player’s first choice is a Kamaka.
There’s a PBS documentary about Kamaka and how the founder, Sam Sr., began crafting ukuleles in the family’s basement. In the early 1920s he opened a storefront and produced a ukulele body that people said looked like a pineapple. The Pineapple Ukulele became popular worldwide and is still the family-owned-and-operated business’s signature ukulele, although the company manufactures nine models now.
The factory offers free tours and we went early, thinking there could be a line. But there were only five of us that Friday morning and we were welcomed by gracious staff in the modest lobby.
One sign on the wall said tours lasted approximately 30–45 minutes (ours lasted nearly two hours) and another entitled “Repair Policy” read, “The current repair time is about one year. We will call you when your repair is finished. Kamaka Hawaii, Inc. will not do rushes.”
I should have realized then that this was no ordinary company and that our tour would not be led by some hired docent. This was going to be genuine, the real deal. Then Fred Kamaka, the founder’s second son, now in his 80s, stepped out from the office to greet us — and he was.
With hands that revealed years spent working with wood, he held up photos — some framed, some frayed — as he spoke about his father’s early ambition to create the most resonant ukulele. He showed us that original instrument and spoke to us as though it were the first time he had told the story of the evolution of the Kamaka ukuleles — each made by hand from aged local koa wood.
While Fred served in the U.S. Army and Sam Jr. pursued a doctorate at Oregon State University, their father Sam Sr. became seriously ill. He called his boys home and gave them this advice: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”
The brothers took over the business when Sam Sr. passed in 1953, after hand-crafting his ukuleles for over 40 years.
What was Kamaka and Sons became Kamaka Hawaii, Inc.
I wondered where the entrance to the actual factory was as I looked around the crowded office area where he stood, then Mr. Kamaka pointed to the front door and said, “Follow me outside to the wood pile.”
Out the front door and around back were piles of Hawaiian koa wood left to dry for seven years before becoming a Kamaka ukulele. From there we went upstairs, walking through sawdust on the factory floor where every corner, every shelf, every inch of space was filled with ukuleles or ukulele parts.
We stopped at the work stations and Mr. Kamaka held up parts labeled “demo” to explain the process. He encouraged us to feel the wood, touch the sand paper, smell the varnish.
Mr. Kamaka told us the factory had to move soon. The city was building a new civic center and his little factory was located right in the heart of it. He had gotten one lease extension for five years, but that was four years ago.
It was obvious that Kamaka Hawaii, as we saw it that morning, would gradually fade away. There would be a new factory in a different part of town. The Kamaka grandchildren were introducing computers into the mix and new equipment was on the floor waiting to be moved to the new location. Computerized technology means more efficient, perhaps better, ways to produce the world’s most coveted ukulele. And eventually Fred Sr. and Sam Jr. will stop coming to work and giving tours.
I felt privileged to be in what seemed like a very sacred place with this revered man, the artist and the art virtually unchanged in nearly 100 years. I hope that they are both there when we return.
Reach Michele Thomas, the Del Norte Triplicate’s publisher, at email@example.com, 464-2141 or stop by 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays.