A centennial is almost by definition a “once in a lifetime” for almost anyone, and a monumental event for that reason alone. The centennial of Kamaka Ukulele is monumental for at least two other reasons.
For one, Kamaka is the first Hawaii-based manufacturer of musical instruments to reach the century mark. It is also one of the few Hawaii-based businesses of any type that has remained a family-owned business for that long.
The story begins in 1916 when Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka established the Kamaka ‘Ukulele and Guitar Works in the cellar of his home on 5th Avenue in Kaimuki. The ukulele was a relatively new instrument in 1916 — the first recorded mention of the machete, the Portuguese instrument that evolved into the ukulele, was in 1879. The first mention of the ukulele as such was in the 1880s, and it took some time after that to catch on. However, by 1916 the ukulele was tremendously popular in Hawaii and across much of the mainland United States.
KAMAKA UKULELE FESTIVAL — 100TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION
5 p.m. Sunday
$54-$90 (kamaaina discounts available; ID required)
hawaiitheatre.com or 808-528-0506
HAWAIIAN SPRINGS HAWAIIAN CLASSICS CONCERT SERIES
Nov. 19: Brother Noland Conjugacion
Dec. 17: Amy Hanaiali‘i & Willie K
Jan. 14: Maunalua
Feb. 4: Teresa Bright
March 11: Robert Cazimero
April 8: Weldon Kekauoha
May 1: Kuana Torres Kahele
June 3: Jerry Santos
July 15: Sean Na‘auao
Aug. 12: Raiatea Helm
Sept. 9: Ledward Kaapana
In 1924 Kamaka moved the business out of his basement and into a factory at 1814 S. King Street. Four years later he patented a distinctive “pineapple” ukulele that was manufactured to the same high standards as the standard design.
Kamaka’s sons, Samuel Kamaka Jr., and Fred Kamaka Sr., kept the company going after his death in 1953. Sixty-three years after that, their sons — Fred Jr. and Sam’s sons, Chris and Casey — handle daily operations. Fred Jr. is the business manager, Chris is the production manager and Casey makes the custom orders. Chris’ sons, Dustin and Christopher, are actively involved as well; they represent the fourth generation of the family’s commitment to making the world’s best ukulele.
“If my father could see this he’d say it was a miracle, a blessing from above,” Sam Jr. said.
The company is celebrating the centennial with observances that include a Reyn Spooner limited-edition line of “Kamaka Ukulele 100 Years” aloha print wear, and a two-disc CD, “Kamaka Ukulele Presents Keep Strumming!” a compilation that could be a front-runner for the 2017 Hoku Awards. A book documenting the company’s first 100 years is in production.
The celebration continues Sunday with a concert, the “Kamaka Ukulele Festival — 100th Anniversary Celebration,” at the Hawaii Theatre. The concert is the first of the Hawaiian Springs Hawaiian Classics Concert Series that continues through next September, and as an entertainment milestone, it is the biggest. Performers include Jake Shimabukuro, Benny Chong, Ho‘okena, Herb “Ohta-san” Ohta Sr., Herb Ohta Jr., Paula Fuga, the Side Order Band, Kama Hopkins, Momi Kahawaiolaa, Aidan James, Hula Hui O Kapunahala and Halau I ka Wekiu.
Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. and their sons and grandsons will be there, of course. Chris — who has a parallel career as professional musician and Hoku Awarding-winning recording artist — will be on stage making music with two groups during the evening.
“It’s going to be a fun night,” Chris said. “I’m going to be playing with Ho‘okena — and Moon Kauakahi’s going to join us. Later on I’m going to be playing with Bryan (Tolentino) and Del (Beazley) and Asa (Young), our original Side Order Band group, and my daughter and my niece are going to dance. It’s going to be fun.”
As the family gathered in the tiny showroom/office of the Kamaka factory at 550 South St., it seemed like a typical afternoon. A musician brought an instrument for some repair work. Another came in to try out one of the limited edition Kamaka Centennial instruments; the music was beautiful. Two fans from Japan stopped by to see the place where Kamaka instruments are made.
“Every year down the road has been a fabulous journey,” Sam Jr. continued. “Our employees are the jewels and gems of our production line.” He said that the company had to shut down during World War II, and the years that his father was battling cancer were “a challenge,” but shutting down for good was never considered.
By the time Sam Sr. died, his sons knew their way around the factory and its dangerous equipment.
“You’ll notice we have all our fingers — both of us,” Fred Jr. interjected, speaking for his brother as well as for himself. “My father made sure you learned to do it right and to do it safely. We had friends who had hands damaged or lost digits because they weren’t careful.”
Keeping a family business in the family isn’t easy. More times than not the third or fourth generation isn’t interested in following in their parents’ and grandparents’ footsteps. Fred Sr. says it was the practical and popular appeal of the ukulele that brought a third generation into the business.
“When they were in high school, they wanted an ukulele for themselves. We said, ‘You’re gonna make your own,’” he said of his son and nephews. “They’d watched us the whole time they were growing up, so we expected them to know (how to do it), and, by golly, Chris was the first one. They all made their own ukulele, and so when they were in high school they could say, ‘I made this.’”
“When they went to college they upgraded their thoughts and they thought, ‘We can improve what our fathers are doing.’ They actually proposed experimenting and we gave them two years — this is 18 years ago — and we said if it didn’t work, they were out. We ran the business for over 40 years, we sold everything we made, we were the most popular guys — and our sons are telling us they think they can improve?”
Long story short, the “experiments” worked. With that, Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. knew the company was in good hands and let their sons take over the management responsibilities.
Now, 100 years after Sam Sr. began making ukulele in his basement, the company manufactures nine different models: standard (also known as a soprano), standard pineapple, concert, tenor 4-string, tenor 6-string, tenor 8-string, baritone, standard deluxe and concert bell-shaped deluxe. A basic standard ukulele is $995. Some of the others run more than twice that. There is a waiting list for everything.
Fred Jr. said that although their goal is to increase production, there’s an upper limit to the number of instruments that the company can make without compromising quality. Kamaka does not sell “factory seconds.” Demand always exceeds supply.
“The way we build them, and the quality controls that we have, it’s something that happens slowly,” Fred Jr. said. “A lot of our increases have come with just increasing efficiency, but we found out it wasn’t a problem that we could just throw bodies at. We’re never going to be able to produce as many instruments as people want, but you always want to be a little less than the demand.”
“Its a nice problem I guess,” Chris added. “We just continue to try to stay consistent and it’s been working to our favor, which has been nice.” As long as the company can find a place to move to when “redevelopment” reaches their side of South Street, he expects the future to be OK.
“It’s exciting because my sons are really into it, they really enjoy the work and, hopefully, as long as we have enough of the materials, and continue to get as good employees as we do now, I think we should be fine. Hopefully we can find some place (to move to) that will work for us. We’ll see.”
A key to the company’s century of success is found in an oft-quoted piece of advice from the founder, Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”