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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 27, 2006

Carrying on the Kamaka legacy

Listen to Sam Kamaka Jr. playing the 'ukulele
Kamaka Hawai'i photo gallery

By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer

Chris Kamaka, 49, checks formed koa edges in the early stages of an 'ukulele at the Kamaka Hawai'i factory on South Street. Chris, representing a third generation in the family business, took over as production manager for his father, Sam Kamaka Jr.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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550 South St.


Factory tours: 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays-Fridays

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Kamaka brothers Fred and Sam Jr.

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Company founder Samuel Kamaka Sr. with the pineapple uke, created in 1927.

Courtesy of the Kamaka family

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At Kamaka factory, George Morita glues a bridge to the belly of an 'ukulele. He was among a group of deaf workers hired 49 years ago.

Photos by DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Erlinda Guerrero, one of about 20 company employees, sands a new instrument at the Kamaka 'ukulele factory on South Street.

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  • Late 1800s — Manuel Nunez is one of the first 'ukulele makers in Hawai'i. The Portuguese word for it is braginho.

  • 1916 — Samuel Kamaka, after working with Nunez, forms Kamaka 'Ukulele and Guitar Works on 5th Avenue in Kaimuki.

  • 1921 — Kamaka opens a bigger factory and shop at 1814 South King St.

  • 1927 — Kamaka designs the company's signature pineapple-shaped 'ukulele, which has a different tone. With the help of his neighbor, Judge Samuel Wilder King, Kamaka patents it in 1928.

  • 1953 — Kamaka's eldest son, Sam Kamaka Jr., takes over the business. Years later, Sam Kamaka Jr.'s younger brother, Fred, joins the company.

  • Late 1950s — The company's "double k" symbol is trademarked.

  • 1958 — The business moves to its present location at 550 South St.

  • 1959 — The company creates the Lili'u, a six-string tenor with a brand new style and named after the queen.

  • 1968 — Sam Kamaka Jr. re-establishes the company as Kamaka Hawai'i Inc.

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    Sam Kamaka Jr. strolled through Kamaka Hawai'i Inc.'s 'ukulele factory, waving at familiar faces and sometimes stopping to chat with employees over the loud, high-pitched buzzing of table saws and sanding machines.

    The sweet smell of freshly-sawed koa permeated the air-conditioned room, and a haze of sawdust blanketed every surface, from equipment and floors to the faces and clothing of the nearly a dozen factory workers.

    'Ukulele-making and everything that goes with it — the sights, sounds, smells, feel, and most important, the smiles — have always been a part of life for Kamaka, 84, co-owner of the company.

    "Oh, it's just fun going to work," the semi-retired Kamaka said with a voice as gentle as the wrinkles on his face.

    As Kamaka Hawai'i celebrated its 90th anniversary this year, family, friends and fans shared memories of what made Kamaka Hawai'i a world-renowned 'ukulele maker, as well as hopes for the next generation of Kamakas to continue the family-run business.

    "It's been a fabulous journey," Kamaka said, beaming.

    Company founder Samuel Kamaka Sr., Sam Jr.'s father, learned the craft of 'ukulele-making from Manuel Nunez, one of the first 'ukulele-makers in Hawai'i.

    When Sam Sr. established the business in 1916, "everything was hand-crafted, and (Kamaka) paid close attention to the sound quality for each 'ukulele," said Aaron J. Sala, who teaches Hawaiian music history at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa and is a graduate assistant with the UH Center for Hawaiian Studies.

    Thanks to such craftsmanship, which continues to this day, Kamaka has been a household name in Hawai'i and beyond for several generations, added Sala, also a Hawaiian musician who won this year's Na Hoku Hanohano most-promising artist award for his album "Ka 'Upu Aloha: Alone With My Thoughts."

    "My grandmother never called her 'ukulele an 'ukulele," Sala recalled. "She never said, 'Bring me my 'ukulele.' She always said, 'Bring the Kamaka.' "


    Fred Kamaka, 81, stood outside his second-floor office at the Kaka'ako 'ukulele factory, gazing at a 1930 photo of his father, Sam Sr., taken in his South King Street 'ukulele shop.

    Beside Sam Sr. was a wide-eyed, 5-year-old Fred, and surrounding the pair were scores of 'ukulele and guitars hanging on every wall and from the ceiling of the store — known back then as Kamaka 'Ukulele and Guitar Works.

    "If you walked into my father's shop, he wouldn't ask you, 'May I help you?'," Fred said, continuing to admire the image. "He asked, 'How many would you like?' "

    Sam Sr.'s business thrived during the 1920s and '30s, an era that Sam Jr. nicknamed "the streetcar days."

    "We (Fred and I) used to go there after school and wait for everybody to pau hana and go home," Sam Jr. said. "We'd see everybody coming in (the store) and the people looking in from the streetcars as they stopped at McCully Station."

    But business slowed considerably for Kamaka after World War II. He would eventually move most of his 'ukulele-making equipment to his farm in Wai'anae and rent out his South King Street shop to women who ran a clothing and gift boutique.

    After Sam Sr. died in 1953, Sam Jr. chose to revive the company. He recalled the kindness of a man named Mr. Murphy, a manager of a music store at Ala Moana Center.

    "He encouraged me to make some 'ukuleles for him to check out," he said.

    With a bachelor's degree in entomology, the young Kamaka had no solid background in making 'ukulele or running a business. So he researched the craft, turned to old-time 'ukulele makers and friends of his father's for guidance, and sought help from friends with business backgrounds.

    "So when I took the first 'ukuleles in to have Mr. Murphy check out — I brought three of them — he says, 'I'll take all the 'ukuleles you can make,' " Sam Jr. remembered, smiling.

    The Kamakas were back in business.


    During a recent morning at the Kamaka Hawai'i factory, Sam Jr. shuffled through papers in his brother Fred's office when a head poked through the doorway.

    "Dad, uh, your granddaughter called and asked if you're coming home for lunch," said Sam Jr.'s eldest son, Chris.

    "Uh, I can call her back," Sam Jr. said and laughed.

    For the Kamakas, there's no escaping family at work, and they wouldn't have it any other way.

    "They are the epitome of a family company," said Sala, the UH instructor.

    After Sam Jr. took over the business, he renamed the company Kamaka Hawai'i Inc. in 1968. His only sibling, Fred, a Korean War vet, came aboard a few years later. Sam Jr. became the production manager and Fred served as business manager.

    The men, now in their 80s and semi-retired, turned the company over to their sons a few years ago; Sam Jr.'s son, Chris, took over as production manager, and Fred's son, Fred Jr., is the business manager.

    Sam's other son, Casey, restores and repairs 'ukulele, and creates custom instruments, such as the limited-edition Jake Shimabukuro Signature Model 'Ukulele, which will be released this year, commemorating the company's 90th anniversary.

    "I've known the Kamaka family for many years now," said Shimabukuro, an O'ahu musician who is now an internationally known 'ukulele player. Shimabukuro's latest CD, "Gently Weeps," features his solo work on the 'ukulele. It was released in July.

    Shimabukuro's first 'ukulele was a Kamaka that his mother got when she was in intermediate school.

    "Talk about 'heart,' you know? They're just the nicest and sweetest people, and you can feel that in their instrument, too," the musician said.

    The company's family members are among 20 employees, some of whom have been with the company for so long that they've become part of the 'ohana. That includes George Morita, who was among a group of hearing-impaired workers Sam Jr. hired nearly 50 years ago.

    "They had good hands, they were at work every day, right on time, and communication wasn't a problem because they read lips," Sam Jr. said. "After a while, it was so easy for them."

    Among other 'ukulele-making steps, the deaf young men learned how to tap the instrument's soundboard to feel for the right thickness of wood — a critical step that assured sound quality. Their methods have become legendary among 'ukulele aficionados.

    Back in the factory, Morita was gluing a bridge onto an 'ukulele when he stopped to chat with Chris, using a mix of sign language and lip-reading. Morita has been working at the company for 49 years — Chris' age.

    "He cannot really hear what the customers are saying or hear the instrument itself, but just by looking at their faces, the pleasure that they have is real fulfilling for him," Chris said.


    In a small room above the factory, contemporary Hawaiian music played on a radio as Dustin Kamaka, 25, plucked and tested the strings of an 'ukulele.

    "He does a lot of the repairs of our vintage instruments," said Chris, Dustin's father, while watching Dustin work on the 'ukulele.

    Dustin is among the next generation of Kamakas who may one day help run the family business.

    "We're still going strong," Chris said proudly. "We've got a good group of guys now. A lot of them now are more on the younger side, which is good. There are a few old-timers that are still working hard, too."

    In the immediate future, the company plans to launch its Web site, work with PBS on a special documentary on the company's history and find a new property to house its growing business.

    But Sam Jr. already is thinking about the next major milestone: "My sons and my brother's son will be carrying on to the 100th anniversary for sure."

    Until then, the family and the company will continue to concentrate on what they do best: creating quality 'ukulele.

    "What Kamaka (Hawai'i) has done is they've provided an instrument of such excellence and such high standards that when you pick up a Kamaka 'ukulele, you don't look at it as a novelty instrument, you take that instrument seriously and you respect it," Shimabukuro said. "You want to play it."

    That's the greatest thing any instrument maker can do, Shimabukuro said.

    "Our family loves it, and hopefully they're going to keep it going," Sam Jr. said.

    Family-run business celebrates its 90th year doing what it knows best: crafting quality instruments

    • • •


    To commemorate the company's 90th anniversary, Kamaka Hawai'i Inc. and 'uku-lele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro collaborated on a limited-edition Jake Shimabukuro Signature Model 'Ukulele.

    The tenor four-string, designed by luthier Casey Kamaka to Shimabukuro's requirements, will be individually hand numbered and autographed. Among the uke's features: a premium curly koa body, ebony fingerboard and bridge with Shimabukuro's logo inlaid in mother of pearl, and gold Schaller mini guitar keys with ebony buttons.

    Only 100 of these 'ukulele will be made. Shimabukuro and Kamaka Hawai'i are conducting a lottery to give would-be buyers a chance to obtain one — at $5,500. Deadline for lottery forms is Thursday. For more, see www.jakeshimabukuro.com.

    Reach Zenaida Serrano at zserrano@honoluluadvertiser.com.