ESTABLISHED in 1916 in what was then the Territory of Hawaii, Kamaka is the oldest manufacturer of ukuleles in the world and the name is still synonymous with quality. KAMUKE chats to production manager and third-generation luthier Chris Kamaka.
What makes a Kamaka ukulele so special?
Here at Kamaka, we really take pride in our work. We are fast approaching 100 years and I feel special just to be a part of it. Experience helps with anything and we all learn from our mistakes along the road of life. Through the years, there have been ups and downs, but it’s how you handle your journey that makes the difference.
As a Kamaka, was being involved in the family business your only career option?
No, I almost joined the US Air Force with aspirations to be a pilot. Now my two younger brothers are captains with Hawaiian Airlines and my son Dustin is a pilot flying with Trans Air, a cargo outfit here. I majored in business and art design with the intention to join the family business.
What does your role as production manager entail?
I oversee the production models, primarily to manage the orders and make sure everything is flowing properly. I also look over and check each instrument before we send them out.
There are more and more uke builders arriving on the scene all the time. How has Kamaka responded to that challenge?
The ukulele has grown and the popularity is tremendous. Many builders today look to us to set the standard because we have expectations and we hold our craftsmanship at a high level. We try to continue to set the bar high and maintain a level of excellence which others look up to. I am glad there are more builders and welcome them. I don’t see others as a challenge to what we do.
Why do you think we’re seeing such a worldwide resurgence of the ukulele now?
The ukulele has always been a fun instrument. Technology (especially things like YouTube) has helped introduce the ukulele worldwide. There have been many promoters of the ukulele through the years, most recently Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Jake Shimabukuro.
How did the famous and often copied Pineapple Ukulele come into being?
My grandfather Samuel Kamaka Sr invented the pineapple and actually had it copyrighted until a few years ago. He started building pineapple ukuleles in his garage in Kaimuki, experimenting with the sound.
What’s your bestselling model?
It’s pretty close, but I would say the HF-3, our four-string tenor model.
Tell us about Kamaka’s proud history of employing disabled people.
My dad hired many hearing-impaired workers and they turned out to be some of our best workers. My mom was an occupational therapist and introduced many of these workers back in the day. Their sense of touch was so sensitive that when my dad trained them, they could tell just by tapping on the top of the instrument whether it was correct or not.
What can a visitor expect from the Kamaka factory tour?
If you have uncle Fred as your tour guide, you will have one thorough tour, and I’m sure you will enjoy it tremendously.
Check out the full Kamaka range and find your nearest stockist at kamakahawaii.com
This article first appeared in Issue 7 of KAMUKE, which is available in the Store