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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015


The Little Five (Page 2)

It’s no secret that family businesses rely on unpaid labor. The children of entrepreneurs pitch in from the time they can hold tools. And retirement? That’s for people who don’t have ledgers to balance or employees who call in sick. But family-operated workplaces are uniquely social environments; hours are spent laboring side by side with the people most dear.

At 90, Fred Kamaka still clocks in four days a week at his family’s ‘ukulele factory in Kaka‘ako on O‘ahu. Fred started working at age four, alongside his elder brother Sam Kamaka Jr. Each afternoon, the boys went straight from the school bus to their father’s workshop, where they glued bridges, backs and fretboards onto ‘ukulele.

Nowadays, Fred’s primary chore is giving tours of the family business. The smartly dressed senior has no trouble shouting over the factory’s sanders, vacuums and saws. The scent of cut wood permeates the high-ceilinged warehouse, and a silky film of sawdust blankets every surface. At the end of the production line, shiny ‘ukulele await their owners: gorgeous wooden instruments that gleam as if lit from within. The double K logo tucked between the tuning pegs commands respect throughout the music world—and fetches a hefty price. Kamaka ‘ukulele start at $895 apiece.

Fred’s tours begin with a brief history of the iconic Hawaiian instrument—a tale interwoven with his own family history. The ‘ukulele’s invention dates back to the 1880s, when Portuguese immigrants brought several small guitars to Hawai‘i. A few tweaks to the strings and the uke was born. Native Hawaiians, notably King Kalakaua, embraced the instrument. Fred’s father, Samuel Kaiali‘ili‘i Kamaka, numbered among the early adopters. The young Hawaiian apprenticed under Manuel Nunes (one of three luthiers credited with inventing the ‘ukulele) before shipping off for adventure. Using the ‘ukulele as his ticket, he traveled for five years across the United States, Europe and Africa.

When Samuel returned to O‘ahu, he set about making his own instruments. He built his first ‘ukulele out of construction scraps but soon switched to koa—a lustrous and resonant Hawaiian wood. In 1916, in the basement of his Kaimuki home, he opened Kamaka ‘Ukulele and Guitar Works.

It was a fortuitous move; an ‘ukulele craze swept North America during the Roaring Twenties. Inexpensive and fun to play, the uke became the era’s most popular musical instrument. To meet demand, manufacturers popped up in Hawai‘i and on the Mainland. Samuel’s superior craftsmanship earned him a solid piece of the market. He further carved out his niche with a patented design: an oval-shaped ‘ukulele painted to look like a pineapple.

Then the Great Depression hit. Kamaka’s orders plummeted. Samuel’s handmade instruments sold for just five dollars, mostly to customers overseas. “If it wasn’t for my father selling ukes to Japan, we would’ve closed up shop,” says Fred. By 1940 Kamaka was the only Hawaiian ‘ukulele maker still in business.

After Fred and Sam Jr. graduated from high school, dad sat them down and made them company partners—or, as Fred puts it, “tricked us into signing papers.” But Uncle Sam took priority. The brothers were drafted to fight in WWII and afterward used the GI Bill to attend university. In 1953 their dying father called them home. Sam Jr. abandoned his studies to take over the business.

Without the benefit of his father’s expertise, Sam Jr. struggled to find solid employees, especially skilled craftsmen. His wife, an occupational therapist, suggested giving disabled workers a try. Sam Jr. hired a few hearing-impaired woodworkers and discovered that their heightened sense of touch was a tremendous asset. They could “feel” the sound—accurately measuring the thickness of the wood through vibration alone. One such employee, George Morita, built Kamaka ‘ukuleles from age 18 to 62—nearly as long as Sam Jr. and Fred. 

Fred rejoined his brother at the factory in 1972. For the next three decades, he handled the office while Sam Jr. managed manufacturing. Slowly their sons have taken their places. Fred’s son is the business manager, while Sam Jr.’s sons supervise production and special orders. Casey Kamaka—Sam Jr.’s middle son—might have the best schedule of the bunch. He followed his dream to become a pilot and now spends mornings flying interisland for Hawaiian Airlines and afternoons tinkering with custom ‘ukulele, adorning them with mother-of-pearl inlays and ebony fretboards. 

The company handcrafts four thousand ‘ukulele per year—every one spoken for. The instruments become treasured family heirlooms, credited with sparking more than one musician’s career. ‘Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who exclusively plays Kamakas, is known to have said that Casey puts his heart and soul into them. Other celebrity fans have included George Harrison, Eddie Vedder and Auntie Genoa Keawe. “In Hawai‘i music is so important,” says Casey. Keeping his family’s legacy alive fills him with pride. For their contributions to music history, Sam Kamaka Sr. and his two sons were each inducted into the ‘Ukulele Hall of Fame. 

At the tour’s end, Fred recalls Jonah Kumalae, a contemporary of his father. Until 1940 Kumalae was the most prolific ‘ukulele producer in Hawai‘i. “He had eight kids, but none were interested in taking over the business,” Fred says, shaking his head. “His son brought one of his father’s ukes to us for repair.”