Hawaii's oldest ukulele factory offers free tours

 
LA Times | Travel
 

What: A tour of the oldest ukulele factory in Hawaii. Where: 550 South St., Honolulu, Hawaii, 808-531-3165; www.kamakahawaii.com). How much: Nada. Kamaka Hawaii's world headquarters is the sort of building you pass without a second thought: a two-story, cinder-block structure on a ...


By Christopher Reynolds // 06.30.09
 

What: A tour of the oldest ukulele factory in Hawaii.

Where: 550 South St., Honolulu, Hawaii, 808-531-3165; www.kamakahawaii.com).

How much: Nada.

Kamaka Hawaii's world headquarters is the sort of building you pass without a second thought: a two-story, cinder-block structure on a busy Honolulu street near Waikiki. But inside, wooden wonders and sweet sounds await.

This is the oldest ukulele factory in the Hawaiian islands, and if you show up at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, you get a free tour. Chances are your guide will be Fred Kamaka Sr., vice president of the company and the 85-year-old son of its founder. (His brother Sam Kamaka Jr., 87, is president.) The tour might last half an hour, or it might last an hour.

Either way, Fred Sr. will make sure you understand that these are serious instruments -- prices for a handmade Kamaka begin at $650. He'll also see that you get a little koa wood souvenir he calls a ukulele hole. He'll tell about the company's early days in 1916, when his dad, Sam Kamaka Sr., wanted to make guitars. Hawaiians were just taking to the ukulele, which is based on a traditional instrument imported by Portuguese workers in the 19th century, and Kamaka chose to go with the flow.

The factory is only about 5,000 square feet. Before long, you'll head out back to see the drying stacks of wood, then upstairs where the sawdust flies. You'll hear why Hawaiian koa wood is so great for musical instruments, how the company made a baritone ukulele for Arthur Godfrey in the 1940s. You'll almost certainly hear Fred Kamaka repeat the stubborn refrain that he heard from his father beginning at about age 5.

"You're using the family name. Don't make junk!"

Apparently they aren't. Every year, the company's roughly 30 employees produce 3,500 to 4,000 instruments, about a quarter of which will go to Japan, none of which will go unplayed for long.

"Everything we're making has already been sold," says Fred Kamaka Jr., the company's business manager. "We're normally back-ordered about a month and a half." The last time the company had any unsold inventory, he adds, was in the early 1980s.

So are ukuleles hip now, all these years after Don Ho and Tiny Tim?

Sort of. Consider the enduring appeal of the late Iz Kamakawiwo'ole's 1993 voice-and-uke version of "Over the Rainbow." Consider Paul McCartney, who hauled out a uke (and played "Something" in memory of George Harrison) at the Coachella music festival in April. Consider the uke tunes of such 21st-century musicians as Jake Shimabukuro (of Hawaii), Jens Lekman (of Sweden) and Dent May (of Mississippi). A few hours after our visit, celebrated Nashville banjo player Alison Brown was due for a VIP tour.

It's a good bet that the Kamaka family business will last into a fourth generation. Sam Jr. and Fred Sr., who took up the reins after their father died in 1953, have now passed along most duties to three of their sons. There are a dozen grandchildren, and one is already working full time for the company.

But for all that has remained the same at Kamaka, a lot is likely to change soon. After 50 years on South Street, the company has gone to a year-to-year lease with its landlord, and the Kamakas are keeping their eyes out for a larger space.

"We're still looking," says Fred Kamaka Jr. "We're not sure, the way the economy is, whether we want to be involved in a big move right now. But we do want a larger place, and we do want to have tours."