I had emailed for information before we left Seattle. “If you’re the only ones here at 10:30, you’ll have a private tour,” was the reply.
A friend here who’d already taken the tour cautioned us. “Not much to it,” he said. “It’s quick.”
Once we were in Honolulu, I spent eons figuring out which bus to take, whether to transfer, where to transfer, where to get off. Carrying my low expectations — Would we even find the place? — like a disappointing sack lunch, we arrived without a hitch at Kamaka, Hawaii, Inc., “maker of Hawaii’s finest ukuleles since 1916.” Another couple was already waiting. She had carted her Kamaka here from Victoria, B.C. to get it autographed. Even though the reception/sales area was overflowing with ukuleles, Kamaka family memorabilia, t-shirts, string sets and other musical paraphernalia, my spirits brightened. The instruments here must be special for someone to carry one on an airplane just to get it signed.
I’d pegged one of the guys wandering around the office area as our tour leader. What a surprise when eighty-nine-year-old Fred Kamaka, Sr. — one of two sons of the founder of the business — appeared behind the sales counter and started talking. After sharing his father’s story he got to his own involvement in ukulele-making beginning at age five. Highlights of his presentation included: showing us the original “pineapple ukulele,” which his father built and patented in 1926; hearing that Kamaka ukes sold for five dollars in the nineteen thirties, and that ukuleles became hugely popular on the mainland after WWII when U.S. servicemen brought them home; and learning that our tour director, his father and brother had been inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame.
From the history of the origins of the ukulele to the Kamaka family and factory history, we moved to the workshop, where we saw that Kamaka grandsons had brought the operation into the twenty-first century. Though hand labor is still involved, some pieces of today’s instruments are created using a CNC machine (computer-controlled milling machine) capable of carving six necks at a time, electrically heated bending forms, and other woodworking machinery to accelerate the process. Their annual goal is to produce four thousand ukuleles, though they’ve never quite hit this mark.
Mr. Kamaka broke into an infectious smile for the photograph. His enthusiasm for his products was contagious. My husband, a guitar maker himself, should know. Before leaving, he ordered a tenor ukulele.