ARTICLE by Julie Yaste
The ukulele is simple: four strings, a dozen or so frets and a gently curved wooden frame.
Within an afternoon, a novice player can pick up a song or two. There’s something beautiful in its minimalism. Songs can be as simple or complex as the player desires. No matter the song or technique, whenever a tune is strummed on a ukulele, Hawaii comes to mind.
For over a century, the ukulele has been the emblem of Hawaiian mele, or songs. Few places are so closely associated with a single instrument as Hawaii is with the ukulele. And like so many of the icons of Hawaiiana, the ukulele didn’t originate on these sandy shores. Instead it was transplanted during the plantation boom.
Sugar plantations that were tended by close-knit communities of immigrants fueled Hawaii’s economy for decades. The plantations started bringing over laborers in the mid-1800s from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines and eventually from Portugal and Puerto Rico. Each influx of people brought their own cultural traditions, from food to language and especially music.
In 1879 a boat laden with workers from the Portuguese island of Madeira pulled into Honolulu Harbor, and some of these newcomers brought small four-stringed guitars called machetes. These instruments evolved in Hawaii, taking on four standard sizes and tuning, eventually settling into a modern ukulele. By the turn of the 20th century they had solidified as one of the most popular instruments in Hawaii.
There is no consensus on how it went from machete to ukulele or what precisely “ukulele” translates to. The most common translation is “jumping flea,” because of how musicians’ fingers seemed to jump around while playing. That’s probably why the song people sing to tune is “My Dog Has Fleas” for each note: G-C-E-A.
Ukuleles made their way to the international stage during the 1920’s, when jazz musicians made heavy use of them. Their popularity waned somewhat for the next few decades, but hits like Tiny Tim’s 1968 “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” kept ukuleles in the popular consciousness throughout the years.
Now ukuleles are popular all over the world, thanks in part to the hit success of Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro. There are many small craftsmen who build stunning instruments throughout the Islands, but four companies have risen to the height of the industry in Hawaii: Kamaka, Kanile‘a, KoAloha and Ko‘olau. They’re affectionately known as the four K’s. Instruments by these master builders are guaranteed to have a stellar sound, and many professional local musicians prefer instruments from one of these companies.
So while you enjoy a perfect dinner in Waikiki with resident musicians serenading you on the ukulele, take a look at the instruments. Chances are, that “uke” came from one of these four companies.
Kamaka is the oldest ukulele manufacturer in Hawaii. It’s been family owned and operated since 1916. The company started when Sam Kamaka Sr. started making koa wood ukuleles out of the basement in his Kaimuki home, and it grew from there. By the 1930s he enlisted his two young sons, Sam Jr. and Fred, to help in the shop, even though they were both still in elementary school. Now, at 92, Fred Kamaka still helps with factory tours four days a week, where he regales visitors with stories from his youth and how the company came to be.
Fred tells how his father gained a reputation for creating quality handcrafted instruments. During the ukulele craze of the 1920s Sam Sr. experimented with body shape, and engineered the first “pineapple” ukulele. That original pineapple ukulele—painted to look like a pineapple—is on display inside the shop.
After Sam Kamaka Sr. died in 1953, Sam Jr. and Fred took over the business and honed the skills they had started to learn as children, making ukuleles by hand. Now their sons run the business.
With the new generation have come new innovations. While much of the assembly is still done by hand, some of it is now automated. The necks and front and back panels are all cut by machine then put together. Chris Kamaka, Sam Sr.’s grandson, checks each instrument before it is shipped out.
2017 marks the 101st year in business for Kamaka Ukulele and it’s going strong. “What happens the second hundred years?” Fred will ask visitors. “I don’t know. I won’t be around.” But it’s clear that he’s not worried. The business is in good hands.
Tours are offered Tuesday through Friday at 10:30 a.m.
Kanile‘a Ukulele was founded by Hawaii-born couple Kristen and Joe Souza in 1998 in the hope of producing heirloom quality instruments.
The majority of the ukes that come out of Kanile‘a are made from koa wood that was largely harvested on the Big Island. In addition to koa instruments, Kanile‘a uses walnut and a few other wood types, often by request in custom orders.
Kanile‘a blends traditional by-hand construction methods with some newer mechanized steps. The necks are cut by machine and a special laser cutter generates the pearl inlays. Everything else is done by hand. The resulting instrument is quality checked before being sold. Any instrument that doesn’t pass muster is sent back to the factory and not made available for sale.
In addition to handcrafted instruments, Kanile‘a also has a more affordable line of instruments called Islander Ukuleles. These ukes are shipped in from overseas and while less individualized, they are still good instruments that are great for a new player.
Owners Joe and Kristen also have a vested interest in conservation, and run a nonprofit geared towards protecting and enhancing koa wood forests. Their nonprofit is called Reforest Hawaii.
Tours are available daily at 10:30 a.m.
Unlike Kamaka and Kanile‘a, all aspects of forming the body of the ukulele at KoAloha are done without machinery. “Everything is cut and glued by hand,” says employee and tour guide Daniel Nakashima. It’s clear that Nakashima, as well as all employees, takes great pride in the work.
The instruments here utilize an interesting internal bracing system. Instead of traditional bracing along the interior of the ukulele and by the sound hole, KoAloha has a unibrace that gives it increased stability. They are so stable that, during a factory tour, Nakashima will place the body of a ukulele on the floor and stand on it. It’s a cringe-worthy sight, as most instruments would buckle under the weight of an adult male, but the KoAloha uke holds.
The company uses a wide variety of wood including koa, monkeypod, rosewood and mahogany. The different types of wood all produce their own sound. The only items not made in-house is the instrument’s necks, which is laser cut overseas then glued onto the body.
Tours are available Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
KO’OLAU GUITAR & UKULELE
Ko‘olau Guitar & Ukulele is a custom shop, with no standard models. Patrons will pick and choose the shape, size, type of wood and design based on personal preference to produce something customized to the player.
This is another family-run business with a father and son, Jon and Noa Kitakis. Noa crafts the instruments. Because it is a custom shop, Noa has the freedom to tailor every detail for optimum sound. That careful attention comes at a price. Ukuleles from Ko‘olau routinely sell for $2,000 or more.
Part of that cost is the intricate inlays Ko‘olau is known for. Just about any design you can imagine can be made into an inlay including tropical flowers, green sea turtles and taro leaves.
The other three ukulele shops make custom orders upon request, but that isn’t the primary business.
You might think that with a tight market for high-end ukuleles these companies might have a strong rivalry, but that isn’t the case.
“We’re all friends,” Noa says.