ABOVE: Fred Kamaka Sr. and the Kamaka 100-anniversary headstock. (Fred Kamaka photo by Christopher Phaneuf.)
From the Summer 2016 Issue | BY AUDREY COLEMAN
The Anaheim Hilton’s California Ballroom conveyed a glitz that at first seemed removed from the art and craft of making world-class ukuleles. But on January 23, on day five of the NAMM show, sponsors of Kamaka Ukulele’s centennial concert were seated at 12 white-draped round tables graced with birds-of-paradise centerpieces and bathed in candlelight as servers glided around with tray after tray of appetizers. Not a bad vantage point for enjoying a who’s who of ukulele perform on their Kamakas, hand-crafted by the esteemed Hawaiian luthiers who have been doing it since 1916.
And who among the rest of us, seated on our straight-backed chairs, would begrudge companies such as D’Addario Strings receiving the royal treatment for helping bring together ukulele masters Jake Shimabukuro, Benny Chong, Kalei Gamiao, Herb Ohta Jr., Bryan Tolentino, Andrew Molina, Kris Fuchigami, Brittni Paiva, Aidan James, Halehaku Seabury, and Side Order Band (Asa Young, Bryan Tolentino, Del Beazley, and Chris Kamaka) for a three-hour, once in a lifetime concert?
Last to appear in the splendid lineup, Shimabukuro gave Kamaka perhaps the highest praise of anyone that evening: “I would not be playing the way I do today if it weren’t for their instruments,” and referring to the craftsman of all his customized ukuleles, Casey Kamaka, as “a genius.”
Earlier that day, at the company’s booth on the trade show floor, Casey shared the challenges of crafting an instrument befitting Shimabukuro’s talents. “Jake plays in such a variety of styles and tempos,” the silver-haired luthier said. “He can play pretty hard sometimes, so you have to make it strong enough to survive that kind of playing. Then you also have to make it able to respond to his subtly, too. Every one of them is a little different. It depends on the materials, the wood I choose. So I gauge how I place things and how I build things. I’m talking about the thickness of the wood, how I graduate it so that it supports all the tension that the strings put on it. That’s the whole thing behind building these instruments—creating that balance.”
Nearby—on the photo collage that ran the length of the booth behind their displayed ukuleles—was a photograph of Casey’s grandfather in formal attire, projecting dignity and confidence. Neither the anniversary concert nor Kamaka’s yearly presence at NAMM would have occurred if family patriarch Samuel Kamaka had not started building ukuleles in the basement of his home in Kaimuki, about five miles southeast of Honolulu. The then-young Hawaiian had learned some of the luthier’s craft while in living in Europe, after a stint in the merchant marines. But Hawaiian culture inspired him to further develop and apply his skills.
“He was a musician,” says Casey. “He played bass for some Hawaiian groups. A lot of people in my grandmother’s family were entertainers. My grand-aunt, Auntie Lou, started the Kodak Hula Show in Waikiki in 1937 (the show later became known as the Pleasant Hawaiian Hula Show, before ending its 65-year run in 2002). My grandfather got involved in this music and ukuleles through being around all these musicians all the time. So he made a few ukes in his basement and took off from there.”
In 1916, Sam Kamaka officially went into business as Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works, building instruments from native Hawaiian koa wood at home. Casey has seen the garage in Waianae that served as the company’s first home. “I remember when I was about 10, my dad telling me that’s where grandpa used to keep the machinery he used for making his instruments,” he says. By the 1920s, he had a shop on South King Street in Honolulu. Always experimenting with techniques to enhance sound quality and engage the eye, the entrepreneur created an oval-shaped instrument. Glancing at the original prototype displayed at Kamaka’s booth at NAMM, Casey recounts the story he heard from his dad: “An artist in the shop next to his said [the new model] looked like a pineapple. She painted on [the body] some shapes that looked like pineapples. It’s the same scale length as a figure eight soprano. The tone is a little different because the box changes the dynamics. You get a little bit warmer tone on a Pineapple.” In 1928, Sam Kamaka patented the design.
THE NEXT GENERATION
By 1945, Casey’s dad, Sam Jr., and his Uncle Fred had learned enough about the trade that their father renamed the company Kamaka & Sons Enterprises. But later in the decade, Sam Kamaka sent his sons off to college on the mainland. In 1952, due to failing health, Sam Sr. went into semi-retirement, moving equipment from his store to the garage at the farm he had acquired in Waianae, about 30 miles northeast of Honolulu. Soon after, Sam Jr. abandoned his doctoral studies and moved to Waianae to care for his father.
After Sam Sr.’s death in 1953, Sam Jr. restored the factory at the King Street location and five years later established its larger, present location on South Street. In 1972, his brother Fred rejoined the company as business manager. Meanwhile, Casey and Chris Kamaka learned all they could about lutherie from their father and grandfather. For more than 20 years, Casey has been creating custom ukuleles while Chris has been in charge of quality control in the factory, personally testing every Kamaka uke.
It has been a Kamaka tradition to honor Hawaiian history and music with such custom models as Sam Jr.’s six-string tenor “Liliu” (named for Hawaii’s last monarch and commemorating Hawaiian statehood in 1959) and the bell-shaped “Ohta-San” model he designed with virtuoso Herb Otha Sr. in 1965. For 2016, all anniversary models, both base and deluxe, have commemorative ornamentation above the fretboard. “The logo has the dates on it with the banner,” Casey says. “The KK lettering (honoring Kamaka Sr. and Jr.) is made from the blue New Zealand paua shell highlighted by a mother-of-pearl outline.”
The luthier’s latest challenge is completing the 100th anniversary deluxe Pineapple model. “I chose the Pineapple because that was his patent design,” Casey says. “The five plumeria flowers [surrounding the sound hole] and the vine that intertwines them are a symbol of family.
We have five generations—my grandfather, my dad, my brother and I, my nephews, and my grandnephews. What I haven’t done yet is to create the inlay for the back of the instrument. It will show how the past, present, and future all weave together.”