By Blair Jackson
The ukulele world lost a true giant and a great friend when Samuel Kamaka, Jr. passed away on March 15, 2022, at the age of 99, just three months shy of his 100th birthday. Sam Jr. (as many called him) was the oldest son and namesake of his father, who started Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works in the basement of his home in the Kaimuki neighborhood of Honolulu in 1916, when the ukulele was still in its relative infancy.
Sam Sr. had apprenticed for a short time with Manuel Nunes—credited as one of the first ukulele builders—and was also friends with early uke-maker Jonah Kumalae. In 1921, Sam Sr. opened the first Kamaka store/workshop on King Street in Honolulu; the following year Sam Jr., was born. In 1928, Sam Sr. patented the famous Kamaka Pineapple ukulele design, which became an enormous success and is popular to this day.
Though Sam Jr. was often around the shop and learned various aspects of his father’s craft, after high school he followed a different path for a while, working as a clerk for a Naval construction contractor during the first couple of years of World War II. Kamaka closed its shop during the war and in 1944, Sam Jr. was drafted and shipped out to Guadalcanal and New Caledonia.
Post-war, the name of the company was changed to Kamaka and Sons Enterprises, and Sam Jr. went to the mainland to study entomology at Washington State University, then began pursuing a doctorate at Oregon State. He returned to Hawaii when Sam Sr. fell ill with cancer. Following the patriarch’s death in 1953, Sam Jr. took over the family business, which continued to grow and thrive through the years.
In the late ’50s, Sam Jr. made informational visits to the Harmony Musical Instrument Company in Chicago and a couple of ukulele manufacturers in Japan, and though he picked up some business ideas along the way, he ultimately decided to keep Kamaka smaller and more manageable, focusing on making high-quality handmade instruments on Oahu. Among Sam Jr.’s popular design innovations were the 6-string “Statehood” tenor in 1959, the bell-shaped “Ohta-San” model in 1965, and the long-neck ukulele in 1970.
By the late 1960s the company name had changed again, to Kamaka Hawaii, and in the early ’70s Sam’s younger brother Fred joined the team, working primarily on the business side. Half a century later, Kamaka is still a family affair, with Fred’s son—Fred Jr.—now the company’s business manager, and two of Sam Jr.’s sons—Chris and Casey—working as production manager and custom builder, respectively. Two of Chris’ sons have also now joined the fold. Through the years, the company has earned the devotion of so many top players—particularly Hawaiians—including Genoa Keawe, Herb Ohta, Sr. (Ohta-San), Jake Shimabukuro, Raiatea Helm, David Kamakahi, Kris Fuchigami, Pomaika’i Keawe, Taimane Gardner, and Kalei Gamaio.
On a personal level, Sam was widely respected and loved, known for his kindness, humility, generosity, and loyalty to family, friends, and employees. As early as the mid-’50s, Kamaka made a point of hiring people with disabilities, and indeed the workforce over the decades became intergenerational, too, a testament to the spirit of ’ohana that has guided the company for more than a century.