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Kamaka Ukulele Hawaii: A finely-strung family history

When Frank begins to tell his story, the mood in the front room of the Kamaka Ukulele factory really warms up. Those cheerful little stringed instruments - so synonymous with Hawaii - have been carefully crafted by hand here since 1916, and that isn’t something that’s about to change.

Fred once dreamed of a glittering career, of hitting the big time and striking out a path of his own for him and his family. But fate had other plans.

The sun outside is blazing, although it’s barely half past eleven in the morning. That dense early traffic which clogs Honolulu’s arterial roadways is slowly beginning to disperse. In this small side-street, leading off from the city’s main thoroughfare, no-one is about. We park up and open the door to the factory shop, which makes a somewhat non-descript impression. There isn’t much on the outside of the building to hint at the wonders lurking within.

From 2016 until today: Tradition is important at Kamaka Ukulele

A small bell tinkles as the door shuts. There’s clearly to be no sneaking in here unnoticed. Inside, the shelving is narrow and tightly-packed “Are you here to see the boss?“, inquires a pleasant voice from behind the high counter. Our interlocutor is a young woman, no older than 25. Or perhaps much older after all, for the island’s unique magic may have somehow preserved her youth. There is something truly special about the environment, the sun, the relaxed attitude of Honolulu’s locals.

And so we are introduced to Fred, who comes in and stands behind the glass cabinet. His hands are freckled with liver spots, his hair is a startling white. He wears a short-sleeved, light blue shirt decorated with a floral motif, revealing deeply tanned and slender arms. Well of course he is wearing a Hawaiian shirt – what else could he wear? The cabinet on which he rests his hands contains his entire family history – carved from wood and carefully strung.

Fred’s full name is Frederik Kamaka Senior, and he was the second son of Sam Kamaka, who first established the famous Kamaka Ukulele factory back in 1916. The shop isn’t very big, but then why should it be? The small room offers just a taste of the various shapes and colours of the ukuleles available, and as a stage.

The heart and soul of Kamaka: Frank
The heart and soul of Kamaka: Frank

Fred’s voice trembles slightly as he talks, but at 93 years old this is to be forgiven. Every word is carefully chosen. His eyes gleam with pride through the rims of his spectacles as he recounts his fondest memories and childhood anecdotes.

Our host casts us back to a time before 1900, when Hawaii’s vast cane-fields attracted migrant workers from all around the world. Chinese workers came, along with many Vietnamese and Filipinos. Each embarked upon their own fraught journey across the Pacific to this remote group of islands, bringing their languages, habits and local cuisines with them. In the beginning, they struggled to communicate with one another so music became a sort of common language, Fred explained. He plucked thoughtfully at the strings of a Ukulele whilst he spoke, and the instrument itself seemed to have many more stories to tell.

Among the early arrivals to the islands were a number of Portuguese farm workers, who brought various traditional instruments with them: violins, mandolins, guitars. Whilst such instruments were well known in Europe, they were unheard-of in far-flung Hawaii. “If you wanted to make music here, your best hope would be to take an upturned, empty coconut shell and tap on it,” Fred jokes, smiling quietly to himself in that wry sort of way that only men in their ninth or tenth decades can really pull off. The room grew a little cosier as he spoke. Every comment, every sentence, each small anecdote brought us a little closer to the family’s Hawaiian history.

For a brief moment, we almost felt as though we were part of the family ourselves, such was the intimacy and detail of the narrative. He explained how, over time, the various traditional instruments of the Portuguese were gradually evolved into the smaller form of the ukulele. These were carefully developed through trial and error: the early shape was a little different, but the sound is largely unchanged. With time, this distinctive sound became synonymous with the islands, instantly evoking the grass skirts and the leis, the sunshine, aquamarine seas and sandy beaches beneath your toes.

The Kamaka ukuleles are all handmade
The Kamaka ukuleles are all handmade

Once Hawaii officially became a US territory in 1900, the little ukulele made its first passage to the US mainland, accompanied by Fred’s father Sam, Hawaii’s first ukulele manufacturer. Disillusionment followed.

At first, he encountered little enthusiasm in the US for his island-inspired instruments: the ukulele was mostly dismissed, or treated as a toy. It took some time until interest in the unusual little instrument grew, and then suddenly – in the roaring twenties – this grew into a craze. Almost overnight, the ukulele became a status symbol for students at the most prestigious colleges. Anyone who didn’t have one, wasn’t hip. The distinctive sound of the ukulele wove its way into the very fabric of American culture. It became hip, like the full-beard, man-bun or sustainable water bottles of today.

How the ukulele became a hipster accessory

This was only the beginning. Papa Sam could scent the money to be made. He stayed in the USA for a while, then moved to Europe to study. Five years later he returned to Hawaii. In his baggage: plenty of strategies, the sounds and inspirations of various instruments, and one big business idea. In 1916, his future was sealed. Sam set up his own business – Kamaka Inc. In the process, he had laid the foundations not just for a Hawaiian icon, but for the future of his sons, Sam und Fred. That said, they weren’t always so interested in the family business.

Fred guides us through a collection of old family photos and gestures at the figure of himself as a young boy: “That’s me,” he concedes, allowing a mischievous smile to trace over his wrinkled face. It was incredible, the way that this frail, elderly man was able to generate such a sense of calm and wellbeing. Our morning in the ukulele guitar shop Hawaii seemed to pass in a flash. We had listened to Fred so intently, that we lost all track of time.

By the standards of the time, Sam and Fred enjoyed a happy childhood. They had a home, clothes, enough to eat. The fact that their father was able to sell ukuleles for $5 in Hawaii and send them to Asia for $2.50 provided enough for the whole family. Even as small children they had helped out in the factory, tuning the instruments, sanding the wood and playing the ukuleles. That was something they could both do very well – in contrast to their father. And even in their old age, this hasn’t changed.

The Kamaka factory is absolutely unique
The Kamaka factory is absolutely unique

Despite his love for the ukulele and for his father’s business, the young Fred was always determined not to join the company. He wanted to do something else, to study, and make his fortune. Sam Junior, too, his older brother by three years, never saw himself following in his father’s footsteps. But one night changed all of that forever. Their father became very ill, and at his bedside his still-young sons promised the old man that they would take care of his business, continue to manage it, to innovate and wave the flag of the ukulele company with dignity and pride.

Kamaka Ukulele Hawaii: A Hawaii guitar store with many stories to tell

Fred has now spent the past 65 years here, holding the fort as Kamaka’s joint proprietor behind the tall glass display case. Four times a week, he recounts his life story to interested visitors und occasionally quality-checks the instruments in the factory, which is concealed beyond a plain door in the office. Nowadays, a ukulele costs upwards of $1,000 – that’s quite a few more ‘bucks’ than they cost back in the day, Fred points out, with another grin. He has done his father proud.

Half an hour later, Fred takes his leave of us. He’s had enough for today. Briefly posing for one last picture, he makes a sign of the ‘Shaka‘ with his hand, Hawaii’s eternal greeting, and directs us out into the main building for a factory tour. We accept his invitation and follow the hammering and mechanical grinding into a veritable ukulele-lover’s paradise. A room full of gently scented wood, delicate strings and the occasional strumming of a ukulele. Members of the Kamaka Ukulele Hawaii family are also represented here – whether at the grinding machine, or polishing, or repairing. This has always been the case, as one third generation Kamaka explains, conducting our tour.

Kamaka Ukulele is a family business and the ukulele is a family product. Several generations have contributed to create this depth of tradition. The family story of Sam Kamaka continues to be written: with each string, every touch and every tone – this is something that can never be replaced. And a final inspection for every ukulele off the assembly line is conducted by one man only: Sam Junior himself.

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