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The Sound of the Islands

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From the Fall 2012 Music Issue of Anthology magazine

Chris Kamaka can’t remember a day without the ukulele. For the past two decades, he has overseen production at Kamaka Hawaii, the oldest ukulele factory on the islands; before that, he worked in just about every position on the factory line. Founded by his grandfather, Sam Kamaka, Sr., the company has made beautiful handmade instruments from native Hawaiian koa wood since 1916. So inextricable is his family history from the history of the classic four-string that “Kamaka” is virtually synonymous with “the best-made ukuleles in the world.” After a lifetime spent crafting the instruments, Chris still gets unexpected joy from the process.

“Every once in a while, I find one where the wood is extra beautiful or the sound is really special, and I think, ‘Wow, these guys are lucky to get this one,’” he says with a laugh, in the back office near where he strums and screens every ukulele for quality before it is sent out. “Usually it’s for the rock stars — or the wannabe rock stars.”

The ukulele has lately seen something of a global revival, and the venerable company — now run by a third generation of Kamaka boys that includes Chris and his cousin, Fred Jr. — is busier than ever. Sure signs of a cultural tipping point into a new pool of fans: when your instruments are played in prominent fashion by Eddie Vedder (in his latest album,  Ukulele Songs) and the cast members of  Glee (in the season one finale), all in the same year.

You’ll find Kamaka Hawaii right in downtown Honolulu, behind an unassuming little storefront near the harbor. Four days a week, visitors can enter the two-floor workshop and “talk story” their way around with 87-year-old Fred Sr. — Chris’ uncle — as guide. As the elder Fred describes the cultural history of the diminutive piece of Hawaiiana, he plucks at a hand=painted 1928 pineapple ukulele; so called for its unique shape, the pineapple model became Kamaka’s signature. Its sound — feathery, yet full — is altogether joyous.

The ukulele’s precursor, the four-stringed  braginho, was introduced to the Hawaiian islands in the late 1800s by Portuguese laborers who came to work the sugar plantations. Natives renamed it the ukulele, Hawaiian for “jumping fle,” suggesting the dancing motion of a strumming hand. By 1916, several local craftsmen, including Sam Kamaka, Sr., had set up shop.

These days, each Kamaka uke starts as a piece of rough-hewn koa lumber from the Big Island, aged at least four years in the shade to avoid cracking and warping. Stacks of the prized material sit air-drying at the back of the factory under lock and key. After his front-of-the-house tutorial, Fred Sr. takes visitors around to the sawdust-strewn workshop, where artisans cut, bend, and glue pieces of koa into shape for each ukulele body.

Though the process is greatly streamlined by modern innovations — specially designed machines have shortened the time it takes to cut and bend the wood, and perform the tasks with more accuracy — the basics remain the same after a century. At one workstation, craftsmen carefully “book-match” the wood, resulting in the signature symmetrical grain pattern that butterflies out from the center of each ukulele. At other stations, they attach frets, fingerboards, bridges, and necks.

The process of sanding and lacquering is as painstaking as ever; most ukuleles receive five or six coats of lacquer. The time-intensive process ensures a long-lived instrument and a warm, gleaming finish that sets off the beauty of the koa grain.

After the strings and keys are placed, the ukes sit on a rack waiting for personal attention from Chris. Chris, who is a local musician — a member of the Grammy-nominated band Ko’okena — spends the bulk of his workdays testing the ukes before they are shipped out. Notes drift out from the upstairs portion fo the shop as he tests for sound and catches any imperfections.

Part of the ukulele’s charm is that it is one of the easiest instruments to play, with a relaxed intimacy that has made its influence known far and wide beyond Hawaii and America. And it travels well. Kamaka customers past and present include everyone from George Harrison and Ziggy Marley to ukulele wunderkind Jake Shimabukuro (Kamaka makes a special line of Jake-specific models).

The historic pineapple ukulele displayed in the shop gets a lot of admirers, and Fred Sr. laughs at the idea that it should be hidden away. “My wife says, ‘You gotta lock that up — it’s priceless!’” he says, picking up the uke and plucking its strings affectionately. “But I say, ‘I gotta play it every day.’”