HONOLULU — The sounds of a ukulele are as much a part of the image of Hawaii as the hula and little grass shacks. That tradition has captivated Americans from Laurel and Hardy to astronaut Scott Carpenter . . . from the days of ragtime to swing to rock.
Everywhere we traveled on the islands we heard the familiar plunka-plunka-plunka-plunk accompanying lovely hula dancers and entertainers singing island songs.
My wife heard about a small ukulele factory in Honolulu and suggested that we visit it.
"Visit a ukulele factory?" I asked. "Wouldn't you rather spend the afternoon on the beach at Waikiki?"
"I'd love that," she replied, "but why not do both? It might be interesting to see how they make ukuleles."
Ukuleles were really in vogue during the Roaring '20s and '30s on the mainland when Joe College, garbed in his raccoon coat and straw hat, strummed the miniature guitar-like instrument for fun.
The late Arthur Godfrey also popularized the uke on his national radio and TV shows by picking out melodies and strumming popular tunes.
The advent of rock music and the electric guitar caused the virtual demise of the uke on the mainland, but in Hawaii the ukulele is still a perfect accompaniment for the hula and is a big seller.
More Ukes Than Ever
"We're selling more ukuleles than ever," said Sam Kamaka, who runs the Kamaka Hawaii business with his brother Fred. "We ship a lot to Japan, Tahiti, Samoa, the West Coast, Denmark, Sweden and Germany." Sam Kamaka explained that the word ukulele comes from uku for flea and lele for the jumping motion that insect makes. "Apparently, the rapid movements of the fingers jumping over the strings reminds one of the jumping flea," he laughed.
Kamaka, a 64-year-old native Hawaiian, employs 20 craftsmen who make about 5,000 ukuleles a year. They also produce custom-made lutes and dulcimers. The craftsmen work in a modest two-story plant at 550 South St. in the center of Honolulu's industrial area.
The care that goes into making a ukulele of high quality is impressive. It was an indication of just how seriously the instrument is taken on the islands.
Upon entering the shop the first thing you see are models that the firm features. The standard 4-string uke is the best seller, but there are also 6-, 8- and 10-string instruments. We saw baritone, tenor and concert ukes, and one model shaped like a pineapple.
Specializing in koa wood ukuleles, Kamaka buys the koa that is grown on the Big Island of Hawaii at the 2,000-foot level. Koa is expensive, costing $8 a board foot. "We like it because koa is native to the islands and because the wood is very resonant," Kamaka said.
Kamaka's ukuleles retail for between $150 and $400, although special orders by professionals are considerably higher. "About once a month I get an order for one that will cost $1,000," he said.
The ukulele originated in Portugal in 1,000 BC and was brought to Hawaii in 1879 by Manuel Nunes, a Portuguese master craftsman and instrument maker, who arrived with two other instrument makers. They invented and developed the Hawaiian ukulele.
In 1916 Kamaka's late father, who served his apprenticeship under Nunes, began the Kamaka Ukulele & Guitar Works. The company was reorganized in 1941 to include Sam and Fred Kamaka.
Sam Kamaka didn't learn how to play the ukulele until he was a student at Washington State University, working on his doctorate in entomology. He admits he only did it then to enhance his Island image through the Hawaiian Club on campus.
Got Him a Wife
"Knowing how to play did get me a wife, though," he said. "Fred and I came back to Honolulu to help with the business when our father became ill. A mainland friend of mine came by and said he knew a couple of girls visiting here who might buy ukuleles.
"We went with the ukuleles to their apartment and ended up helping them get started. And I got sold a bill of goods," he laughed.
His wife, Gerri, works in the office keeping track of the business. However, they did find time to have seven children, all of whom, naturally, play the ukulele. Chris, the oldest son, works for the firm.
Gerri Kamaka, an occupational therapist before getting married, undoubtedly influenced the hiring of craftsmen from the ranks of the handicapped. The firm employs four hearing-impaired craftsmen.
"We communicate by writing everything down," Sam Kamaka said simply. "We've found them to be very dedicated workers who take great pride in their creations."
In the workshop we saw other craftsmen at their benches tap the ukuleles, listening intently, then either smiling raptly or taking things apart. Sometimes they lift the instruments and play them to test the musical quality.
"They listen for a certain kind of tone, a sharp, clean penetrating sound," Kamaka said.
Hawaiian children are taught to play the ukulele at school. Frequently they are taken through the factory to observe the craftsmen's painstaking attention to the quality of construction and sound.
Visitors are welcome to tour the Kamaka plant, but are asked to telephone in advance. "We get many visitors from Los Angeles and San Francisco," Kamaka said.
Anyone can have a uke made to his or her own specifications, as did former astronaut Scott Carpenter, who has his own Kamaka 10-string uke.
Kamaka proudly displayed a ledger from 1931 and turned to a tattered page yellow with age. There we saw a bill of sale to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy of Bedford Avenue, Beverly Hills. "My father was very proud of that sale," he said.
Pride in the workmanship of the product is a trademark of the firm. "As long as we make ukuleles using the family name," he said, "we will never make junk. We'll never mass-produce our instruments. Each ukulele will continue to get individualized attention."
If you'd like to tour the factory, write to Kamaka Hawaii Inc., 550 South St., Honolulu, Hawaii 96813, or call (808) 531-3165.