In the early 1900s, Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka began crafting koa ukuleles in the basement of his Kaimuki home. Enjoying the art and confident he could make a living selling his instruments, he opened a one-man shop, “Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works,” in 1916.
Today, the Kamaka name is synonymous with high-quality ukuleles favored by top local entertainers including Jake Shimabukuro, Raiatea Helm and Brittni Paiva. Sam invented the “pineapple ukulele,” which, shaped like the golden fruit, produces a mellow, resonant sound that’s different from the ubiquitous figure-eight shaped instrument.
Kamaka Hawaii is still a family-owned-and-operated business, run by Sam’s grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Fred Kamaka, Sr., Sam’s younger son, now in his 90s, leads a free hour-long factory tour on Tuesday through Friday mornings. Participants see every phase of the ukulele-making process, from raw lumber to gleaming finished instruments; each one receives a final tuning by a member of the Kamaka family. As Fred points out, success has come by following his father’s advice: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”