As a kid, I was in love with assembly lines. Maybe it was the Cub Scout trip to the Rold Gold pretzel factory in El Segundo, the surfboard shaping and glassing bays of my teen years, or the industrial films that were shown on the rare rainy day recesses at Grandview School, but I love seeing how things I love are made.
On New Year’s Eve morning, 84 year old Fred Kamaka, Sr. was leading the tour of the Kamaka Ukulele factory—holiday or not.
This is truly nirvana for the uke player, scion of the greatest uke maker, leading a tour of 10 through the small Honolulu factory, talking story, introducing us to his Ohana, all while detailing the amazing story of his father who started the business 93 years ago, and his brother who took over the business with Sam in the 1950’s.
You know by now that I’m an enthusiastic, but not outstanding uke player. What I may lack in ability, I try to make up for in practice and constant proximity to a uke. On any trip more than a night, I bring a uke with me, and had one with me last week in Park City for the Sundance Film festival. Everyone loves picking up the Uke and Vice Magazine’s Eddy Moretti—an accomplished guitar player was hooked. It’s the easy sound, and comfortable size and weight that makes the uke so cool. A integral part of Polynesian culture, Tahitian ukes are rare, with a totally different sound and vibe. Eddy’s partner, Shane Smith and his lovely wife, Tamika, hauled a beautiful Tahitian uke back for me over the holidays.
The visit to Kamaka was made particularly sweet by Fred’s narrative, and old school toughness. Clearly this guy was not only a taskmaster, but an ass kicker when it came to, and comes to doing things his way, the right way. Fred clearly knows how he wants things done. The automation of things like cad/cam cutting of uke necks, are a product of the next generation of Kamakas. And, while Fred seemed skeptical about the change from a one piece to two piece neck, he was clearly happy to no longer be producing vast amounts of what he calls “the world’s most expensive sawdust,” koa is $30 a linear foot.
The trip to Kamaka was akin to taking my girls to the American Girl store on 5th Avenue in NYC. Like Camille and Daisy with their dolls in tow, I had my tweed cased 1969 Kamaka Soprano over my shoulder. I was eager to bring the uke back home and for Fred and Co. to hear the sweet tone of a very special uke. My ukes aren’t the prettiest, but I only keep the ones that have that sweet tone that I love. Fred liked my uke, but didn’t gush over it the way a proud father hoped he would. I was able to sneak off the tour and spend some time with Fred’s nephew Chris, who showed me some of the amazing custom work that only the Kamaka family members work on. I have a couple of uke projects in the works, but nothing like these Kamaka customs. After some prodding, I was able to get Chris to acknowledge my uke’s special sound.
It was a special hour on the last day of an amazing year. Fred’s narrative centered me on the need to focus on the love of family, hard work, attention to detail, and old school appreciation of doing things the right way. Like my father, who would have been Fred’s age; the islands, family, love, focus, respect and empathy are a big part of what makes Sam and Kamaka special. They operate Kamaka under a simple motto, “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”