Leaning back against a wall mounted with a variety of ukuleles, Fred Kamaka begins the story of his family’s 100-year-old ukulele business for a tour group at the factory in Honolulu.
“To be cool in the ’20s, you needed to have a coonskin cap and a uke in hand,” he says, “So my father started making ukuleles.”
A spry 91-year-old, Fred sprinkles the history with dry jokes, and periodically pulls down one of the ukuleles to musically punctuate a point.
His father, professional musician Samuel Kamaka Sr., traveled to New York and Europe and learned the luthier’s art before he returned to Hawai‘i and began making high-quality ukuleles in 1916. They sold for $5 each, and many of his first instruments were shaped like pineapples, lending a distinctive mellow sound.
His sons, Samuel Jr. ’50 and Frederick ’51, worked in the ukulele factory as kids, but they were also surrounded by the music of the islands. “The family played music all the time,” says Fred. Their mother was a hula dancer and many extended family members played instruments, sang, or danced for arriving tourists.
Sam Sr. made the brothers partners in the ukulele factory in the late 1930s despite their youth. The course of their lives changed, however, on December 7, 1941. Sam Jr. was working another job on a pier near Pearl Harbor that day, while Fred attended Kamehameha High School on the hill above the harbor.
When the Imperial Japanese planes began bombing and strafing, Sam took cover on the pier. On the hill, Fred and a classmate saw the planes coming in, then attacking the U.S. Navy ships. At first, teachers didn’t believe the kids, but with the anti-aircraft fire and explosions, it was clear this was no drill. They hid in the basement as bombs fell outside.
The Kamaka brothers, like many other American boys, were drafted to fight in World War II. Then the pair joined the GI generation heading to college after the war. Sam chose Washington State College, followed by Fred, so the brothers packed their ukuleles and headed to Pullman.
Sam studied entomology and Fred political science, but they also performed music all over the Northwest, including for Washington’s governor. Their ukuleles sometimes provided a meal ticket. Fred and Sam say that when they got tired of dining hall food, they joined fellow Cougs from farm families for a hearty Sunday dinner and entertained everyone with music, like favorite “My Yellow Ginger Lei.”
They were also founders of the Hawaiian students’ organization at Washington State, Hui Hau’oli ‘O Hawai‘i Club, hosting popular luaus along with hula dancer Beverly Ross ’53 and other performers, where they’d play the Cougar fight song, Hawaiian style.
Their father passed away in 1953, so Sam Jr. returned from entomology graduate studies to take over the family’s ukulele business. Meanwhile, since he was in ROTC at WSC, Fred headed to the Korean War.
As an officer, Fred led a squad on notorious Pork Chop Hill in 1953. The fighting was intense, but Fred says he played the ukulele for his troops in the relatively quiet times. He earned a silver star for action, and a Meritorious Service and two Legion of Merit medals. His ukulele also earned a burned spot in the battle.
Fred returned to Honolulu and the family business in 1972. His brother Sam thought he’d do a favor and fix the wounded ukulele. “I said, ‘You ruined my memento from Korea!’” says Fred with a laugh.
The ukulele business was booming through the ’50s, especially with popular TV and radio personality Arthur Godfrey’s adoption of the small instrument. Godfrey played a custom baritone ukulele from the Kamakas. The Kamaka brothers continued the tradition of fine ukuleles, later endorsed by celebrities such as former Beatle George Harrison, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, actor Adam Sandler, and Hawaiian musician Jake Shimabukuro.
Kamaka Ukulele received many local, state, and national awards for craftsmanship and contributions to Hawaiian culture and music. Sam and Fred say they’re especially proud of the first award from the state of Hawai‘i as an “Outstanding Employer of Persons with Disabilities.”
Their father had several disabled workers, a tradition carried on by the brothers. Sam, whose wife Geraldine was an occupational therapist, hired deaf employees. “They could tell a good ukulele by its vibrations,” says Sam, an advantage in the noisy work area. At one point, half of their 20 employees had disabilities.
The family business continues under three sons—Fred Jr., Chris, and Casey—who took over operations in 2000 and used their engineering degrees to automate parts of the process while maintaining important handcrafted elements.
They produce about 4,000 ukuleles a year out of Hawaiian acacia, called koa, with exquisite rosewood or ebony fretboards. Chris Kamaka still plays every ukulele produced and determines if it’s worthy of the Kamaka name.
For their long dedication to music and Hawaiian culture, Fred and Sam received the WSU Alumni Achievement award last summer. Along with their father, the brothers have been inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame.
Video – Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka ‘Ukulele —
For nearly 100 years, Kamaka and Sons’ ‘ukuleles, produced from their tiny shop in Honolulu, have been the gold standard for ‘ukuleles worldwide. This program is a story about the values of hard work, fortitude, honesty and creativity from a distinctly Hawaiian point of view. (Video by Dawn Kaniaupio, ITVS, and PBS Hawaii)
The 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor — A personal history by Fred Kamaka ’51