Photo: Fred Kamaka Sr. and Sam Kamaka Jr.

For over a century, the name Kamaka has been synonymous with exceptional ʻukulele.

In 1916 – after stints as a farmer, professional musician and member of the Merchant Marine – Samuel Kamaka, Sr. began crafting koa ʻukulele in the basement of his Kaimukī home. Five years later, he opened a one-man store and factory at 1814 South King Street (where Gyotaku Japanese Restaurant now stands).

“The ʻukulele is the Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese guitar or braguinha,” said Chris Kamaka, production manager for family-owned-and-operated Kamaka Hawaiʻi, one of the state’s oldest businesses and possibly the oldest Native Hawaiian-owned business. “Manuel Nunes was the first person to manufacture ʻukulele commercially, and he and Grandpa were friends. He had a shop on South King Street, and Grandpa would go there often to ask questions and watch Manuel work. I’m not sure if Grandpa opened his shop before, during or after that time.”

Through those visits and a lot of experimentation, Sam Sr. fine-tuned his skills to make instruments with excellent tone, intonation and resonance. As an ʻukulele player himself, he knew what quality sound was, and he set high standards – which Kamaka Hawaiʻi craftsmen follow to this day.

In the mid-1920s, Sam Sr. designed an oval ʻukulele that resembled the shape of a pineapple, and one of his friends painted the front to look like the fruit’s golden skin. A few years later, in 1928, Sam Sr. patented the design. Kamaka Hawaiʻi still manufactures the “pineapple ʻukulele,” whose mellow, resonant sound is distinct from the traditional “figure eight” instrument.

Sam Sr.’s two sons, Sam Kamaka, Jr. (Chris’ dad) and Frederick Kamaka, Sr., began learning the art of ʻukulele making as young boys in the 1930s, but as they grew older, they had other aspirations. After serving in World War II, the brothers attended Washington State University on the G.I. Bill. Fred earned a degree in political science in 1951, received an ROTC commission and began a 20-year career in the Army. Sam Jr. obtained a master’s degree in entomology in 1951 and was awarded a scholarship from Oregon State University to pursue a doctorate.

In 1953, however, he moved back to Hawaiʻi to care for his ailing father. Sam Sr. died in December that year, and Sam Jr. put aside his dreams of further education to lead the family business.

It grew by leaps and bounds in subsequent years, necessitating a move to a larger facility on South Street in 1959. Fred Sr. joined the company in 1972 after retiring from the Army as a lieutenant colonel. He is now 95 years old, and Sam Sr. is 98; both are enjoying retirement and seeing Kamaka Hawaiʻi continue to flourish with their children and grandchildren at the helm.

Chris Kamaka’s cousin, Fred Kamaka, Jr., is the business manager, and his brother Casey, a Hawaiian Airlines pilot, oversees custom work. Two of Chris’ four children are also involved with the business: his youngest son, Chris, Jr., helps Casey with special orders, and another son, Kamanu, also a Hawaiian Airlines pilot, assists them when he’s not in the cockpit.

Kamaka Hawaiʻi produces 3,500 to 4,000 instruments annually. “Many of the techniques we use today are based on practices my grandfather developed,” Chris said. “That includes air-drying koa lumber for at least a few years before we begin shaping it into ʻukulele. Naturally dried wood prevents warping and improves sound quality.”

Inspections are done at each stage of the production process, and Chris personally examines every instrument before it is released for sale. Customers regard their purchases as heirlooms, and a host of local music legends play Kamaka ʻukulele, including Jake Shimabukuro, Herb Ohta, Jr., Kuana Torres Kahele, Mark Yamanaka, Raiatea Helm, Brittni Paiva and Taimane Gardner.

From the beginning, Kamaka Hawaiʻi’s guiding principles have been aloha, mälama and pono. To that end, the company is a major sponsor of ʻUkulele Festival Hawaiʻi, held each summer at Kapiʻolani Park in Waikīkī. They donate ʻukulele for charity fundraisers and provide discounted instruments to school music programs. And members of the Kamaka family are happy to accommodate community groups’ requests for talks and demonstrations.

“The ʻukulele is an important part of Hawaiʻi’s history, and it has been a great influence in the local music scene,” Chris said. “Four generations of my family are proud and honored to be regarded as master ʻukulele craftsmen, helping to keep that legacy alive.”