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
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.”