Crafting a Legacy

Kamaka Hawaii commemorates its 100th anniversary with a very special `ukulele.

When Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka Sr. began crafting koa `ukulele by hand in the basement of his Kaimuki home in 1916, it’s hard to think he could’ve imagined the legacy his work would leave. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the fruits of his labor: Kamaka Hawai`i, one of the oldest `ukulele manufacturing companies in the islands, and legendary for its impeccable and high-caliber products. In honor of this achievement, Kamaka is planning its most exciting `ukulele yet: a special centennial edition with beautiful designs, shiny shell inlay and artwork from the past rediscovered from so many decades ago. A century ago, Sam Sr. and seven of his friends had originally wanted to make drums, but found greater success with `ukulele. After a brief trip to New York City, Sam Sr. decided to head across the Atlantic to see how musical instruments were built in Europe and South America. In 1921, when Sam Sr. returned home after five years of travel, he decided to open a shop on King Street, Kamaka `Ukulele and Guitar Works, and quickly established a reputation for constructing top-quality `ukulele. Using the knowledge from his voyages overseas, Sam Sr. laid out a pattern for a new `ukulele body, with a big oval instead of the traditional figure-eight. The result was an `ukulele shape that his friends commented as looking “like a pineapple,” which Sam Sr. embraced. One such friend, an artist, painted the image of a pineapple on the front of the `ukulele, and patented the new shape by 1928. Kamaka’s “Pineapple `ukulele” became an instant hit worldwide and put the company on the map as a signature `ukulele producer.


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Sam Sr.’s sons, Sam Jr. and Fred Sr., had both worked at their father’s `ukulele business from elementary school. During World War II, both men were drafted into the army, served, and were able to attend college on the G.I. bill. Although both brothers were partners in the business, now named Kamaka and Sons Enterprises, Sam Jr. was pursuing a doctorate in entomology at Oregon State University and Fred Sr. had a career in the army. In 1952, Sam Sr. became ill and called both sons back to Hawai`i, where he offered them the family business—completely.

“Our father asked us if we wanted to take over the business and make `ukuleles. But he had a warning. He said that ‘if [we decided to] make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.’ We had to make the highest quality `ukuleles—or not at all.” says Fred Kamaka Sr.

The brothers agreed. When Sam Sr. died in december 1953, he had been producing koa `ukulele by hand for more than 40 years. Sam Jr. stepped away from entomology in order to care for their ailing father in his final days and to continue their family business. Fred Sr. retired from the army in 1972 and joined his brother, and in the decades since, their children (and grandchildren) have continued to carry the Kamaka torch, creating the same exceptional `ukulele. A century of business has led to new innovations and technologies for Kamaka, but surprisingly little change when it comes to taking care of their customers. Sam Sr. had done it the right way in 1916; his successors are simply following his example.

To celebrate its centennial, Kamaka Hawaii has an assortment of events and products on the horizon for this year, including a special concert at the annual National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) convention in Anaheim, California in January, a CD release featuring Kamaka `ukulele artists performing both classic and new music, special aloha shirts designed by Reyn Spooner, and a coffee table-style book offering a behind-the-scenes look at Kamaka through its years in Hawai`i.

The crown jewel of this Kamaka 100th Anniversary collection is a limited-edition collector’s `ukulele, featuring a new logo, original artwork and designs for the body, and a distinctive shell inlay detail.

The result will be an `ukulele unlike anything that the company has produced—a bold new model for the next century of Kamaka instruments. To create the shell and mother-of-pearl inlays on the `ukulele, Kamaka is collaborating with Pearl Works, a Maryland company specializing in custom inlay services and designs.

“We love working with the Kamakas,” says Pearl Works president Bill Seymour. “In the past, we’ve assisted with shell and mother-of-pearl inlay pieces for custom single ‘ukulele orders, but this will be the first time Pearl Works is helping to flourish an entire line of instruments for the Kamakas, and we’re very excited.”

Seymour and the Pearl Works team play a critical role in telling the Kamaka story through the centennial `ukulele. The first step was determining the shape of the `ukulele— pineapples, after Sam Sr.’s original patented design. Old labels featuring pineapples were selected for restoration and placement on the new models, along with lettering that reads “Kamaka and Sons” from original models. The back of the `ukulele will bear an image of the original shop, with an image that tells a story, perhaps of “a silhouette of Sam Sr. in the front windows, watching a young Fred or Sam Jr. playing out front,” explains Seymour. “The idea is to convey a sense of the generations that have built the shop. Our goal is to take people to another place and time with these `ukuleles.”

The `ukulele will also feature inlay pieces on the fret boards, shell outlined adornments and specially designed centennial head plates. All Kamaka `ukulele produced in 2016, whether centennial edition or regular, will receive a special design of an unfurled scroll with “1916” and “2016” in contrasting silver shades over the Kamaka logo, in recognition of a century of service.

These Kamaka centennial ‘ukulele are intended to be not just a nod to the past, but a look to the future; to the next century of Hawaiian music, handcrafted `ukulele, and an important family legacy.

All photos courtesy Bill Seymour at Pearl Works,

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