In 2006, I joined a smattering of children to learn ‘ukulele at a Kailua community center. My husband, seeing how much I enjoyed playing, upgraded me for my birthday three years later. My new ‘ukulele’s gleaming blond koa wood was beautiful, and once I plucked her strings, I felt as if this sonorous instrument had been made just for me. I later learned that not only had my fancy Kamaka ‘ukulele been crafted in the city where I live, but the factory welcomed visitors. I knew I had to go.
Kamaka Hawai‘i is inconspicuously situated near an empty Kaka‘ako lot in Honolulu’s waning industrial center. What many—including ‘uke virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro—consider to be the world’s best ‘ukulele are made in an unassuming two-story cinder-block building, surprising yet fitting for a hardworking family operation where instruments are the show. Kamaka ‘ukulele remain in such demand there’s currently a one-month wait for stock orders. Prices range from $695 to $1,295. Custom jobs cost more and require at least a four-month wait, but custom orders are not currently being taken.
The 95-year-old company’s iconic ‘ukulele model, nestled in the crowded reception area where the tour begins, is the painted pineapple-shaped ‘uke. Sam Kamaka Sr. created it in 1926 to achieve a bigger sound more comparable to that of a guitar. “Every ‘ukulele made in the world today follows the sound of the pineapple ‘ukulele,” explained his 86-year-old son and factory guide, Fred Kamaka Sr. “And the sound of the ‘ukulele that you know if you’re an ‘ukulele player was born right here. That dog with fleas.”
I know that dog well, as do so many others who enjoy kani ka pila, but it was an unexpected treat to hear about it from Fred Sr., one of the double Ks inlaid on ‘ukulele necks since he and his brother—the other K, Sam Kamaka Jr.—took over the company in 1954 after their father’s death. Today, three of their sons man the helm.
There was plenty more to learn, from how that sought-after Kamaka sound was created—and during Fred Sr.’s plucking demonstration, how the family has made it even cleaner today—to the shapes and sounds of their nine different models, all made from expensive Hawai‘i Island koa wood. The instruments were stunning, but as I listened to Fred Sr., I was most struck by the Kamakas’ living tradition, ingrained work ethic, and longevity in a changing world. “My brother and I were impressed into the business. ‘You will . . . you must!’” said Fred Sr. with a touch of humor. “It was a way of life.”
Once inside the factory, a cramped space full of whirring machinery, I ignored the heat and noise and stuck close to the charismatic Fred Sr. to better understand how my ‘ukulele was made. It seemed at once complicated and simple—koa planks become separate parts and then a whole instrument, in a coordinated dance of soaking, bending, cutting, and sanding. In this ever-evolving process, old techniques are honed alongside new machines and strategies to reach the annual 4,000-‘ukulele goal.
Rows of clear-lacquered, nearly complete ‘ukulele lined the shelves in the quieter upstairs finishing room. “Nothing is sold, nothing is shipped, without being checked by one or two Kamakas,” said Fred Sr., and that included mine. Before bidding us farewell, he showed us a figured koa Jake Shimabukuro model. They’ve made all of the ‘ukulele savant’s instruments because, as Fred Sr. explained, “Jake says, ‘Kamaka set the standard.’”
If I didn’t already own one, I might have ordered an ‘ukulele on the spot. Instead, I drove straight home, where I retrieved my ‘ukulele from its case. The rest of the day’s work could wait, I decided. This beauty demanded to be played.
Published May 2011 in AAA Hawai‘i
DO: Free Kamaka Hawai‘i factory tours (1-808-531-3165) start at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday–Friday and run 30 minutes to an hour. Groups larger than 10 must schedule in advance. The showroom is open Monday–Friday 8 a.m.–4 p.m.
STAY: Visit the Hawaiian equestrian–themed Equus Hotel for a cozy short stay, or settle longer at a view-studded studio room at adjacent Marina Tower (1-808-949-0061). The Modern Honolulu (1-808-943-5800) encompasses one wing of the former ‘Ilikai. See ‘ukulele in action at Hawaiian music performances at Outrigger Reef on the Beach (1-800-688-7444 or 1-866-733-6420).
Wine pairings by master sommelier Chuck Furuya and elevated comfort food à la D.K. Kodama await at Vino (Restaurant Row; 1-808-524-8466). Tangö Café (Hokua Building; 1-808-593-7288) serves simple, diverse cuisine, from gravlax to Asian-inspired spiced beef, in a glass-fronted Scandinavian-style dining room. Morimoto (1-808-943-5900) serves Western-Japanese fusion fare designed by Masaharu Morimoto, a star of Iron Chef America.