STORY AND PHOTOS BY SANDOR NAGYSZALANCZY | FROM THE SPRING 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Several decades ago, I bought my first Kamaka ukulele (the one at far left in the photo above). Featuring some really cool artwork on the top done with colored ballpoint pen by the original owner, it was, and still is, a great-playing and -sounding instrument. But when my mother saw it, she asked me why it was shaped like a canned ham. Of course, I explained that it was actually called a pineapple uke. Little did I know at the time how this uke body shape came about, or how it was significant to the success of Kamaka.
It all began more than a century ago, when Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka (Senior) started a one-man shop in the basement of his Kaimuki, Hawaii, home. Kamaka learned his trade when he was apprentice to luthier Manuel Nunes in the early 1910s. Nunes was one of the original creators and builders of ukuleles as uniquely Hawaiian instruments. In 1916, Sam Sr. opened “Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works” on South Street in Honolulu, where he produced high-quality guitars and ukuleles made primarily from beautiful native koa wood.
After building ukes with traditional Spanish “figure eight” bodies for many years, sometime around 1927 Kamaka experimented with a new body shape, one that he hoped would produce a more mellow sound. Friends remarked that his new oval-shaped ukulele looked like a pineapple, so Kamaka commissioned one of his artist friends to paint the instrument to resemble the fruit (pineapple plantations abounded on the island of Oahu). Legend says that only the first 50 pineapple ukes were hand painted, some only on the front, some only on the back, making these special ukes some of the rarest and most desirable of all Kamaka ukuleles.
Not only did Kamaka’s pineapple ukes have distinctive looks, they had a fuller, more resonant sound. As a bonus, they were also somewhat easier to manufacture than traditional figure-eight-shape ukes. Recognizing the value of his creation, Sam Sr. applied for a U.S. design patent, which he was granted in 1928. At a time when competition was high due to the uke’s ever-increasing popularity, the patent gave Kamaka an edge, as his was the only company allowed to produce pineapple ukes. By the time his patent expired in 1940, Kamaka was the only major Hawaiian ukulele maker still in business.
All early Kamaka pineapple ukes were constructed with one-piece koa tops and backs, two-piece bent sides, and koa necks with frets set directly into them; no applied finger boards. The non-painted ukes received a large pineapple decal on the top between the soundhole and bridge. A blue “Kamaka Special Pineapple” label inside the body, visible through the soundhole, had Kamaka’s patent and “strictly hand made by S.K. Kamaka” printed on it. Each label also shows an individual serial number hand-written at the bottom.
Pineapple headstock decals typically featured the Hawaiian coat of arms and state motto—”Ua Mau ke Ea o ka Aina i ka Pono” (“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness”), although some have a decal with a smaller pineapple below the Kamaka name.
Kamaka’s pineapples came in several styles, the fanciest of which had rope binding and mother of pearl purfling around the top of the body, soundhole, and along the edges of the fingerboard. The majority of vintage pineapples feature the same rope bindings sans the pearl, sometimes with a rope stripe down the center of the fingerboard. Kamaka also produced an unknown number of pineapple ukes for the Aloha Manufacturing Company. These have an Aloha decal on the headstock that says “Souvenir of Hawaii.”
In the 1930s, Kamaka did a run of pineapple ukes made from Philippine mahogany stained in a reddish color. These had the same Hawaiian coat of arms as earlier pineapples, but had a yellow label inside. In the late 1930s, Sam Kamaka gave his friend and fellow uke builder Johnny Lai permission to build pineapple ukes, allowing him to work at the Kamaka factory when it was closed evenings and weekends. Lai built his pineapples from monkeypod wood, which was less expensive than koa. Initially, he used the name “Ka-Lai,” combining “Kamaka” and “Lai,” but later changed it to “Ka-Lae,” as he thought it sounded more Hawaiian.
During the Korean War (1950–1953), Sam Sr.’s son Frederick carried a pineapple uke made by his father while serving in the U.S. Army. Fredrick said the uke symbolized home for him, and gave him hope amidst the chaos and uncertainty of war.
Starting in 1954, Kamaka pineapples were built with plastic tortoiseshell bindings around the top of their koa bodies and were fitted with rosewood bridges and extended fingerboards. These have a gold Kamaka label inside the body, and a gold double “K” decal on the headstock.
Kamaka is still building pineapple ukes today, as well as many other shapes and styles. The company is still family owned and run, and still follows the sensible advice once given by Sam Sr. to his sons: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”