Getting in touch with the Ukulele renaissance

By Chris McBeath

If the Ukulele is one of Hawaii’s most enduring signatures, then touring a ukulele factory is to get up close and personal with some of the islands’ most time-honoured traditions. Though take note, like the instrument itself, choosing your encounter makes all the difference to the experience you’ll enjoy. Ko’Aloha and Kamaka are two that deliver more than great music.

Crafting a Ko’Aloha Ukulele; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

Aloha Ko’aloha

Located in a working backstreet of Honolulu, Ko’aloha is an inconspicuous factory dressed not to impress. But the familial welcome embodies the Aloha spirit and in its tiny reception, the intriguing showcase of ukes is testament to a special heritage.

The working area beyond is more akin to an overcrowded, compressed Home Depot. Rough koa lumber is piled to the ceiling; milled sheets are stacked like vertical reams waiting a fuller expression; and the air heavy with dancing sawdust, smells sweet of wood, Hawaiian humidity and glue.

Kamaka Factory Sanding; (Photo: Kamaka Ukulele)

The atmosphere, however, is charged with the focused intention of almost 30 artisans hammering, sawing, sanding, shaping, and meticulously crafting the components that make up some of the most sought after ukuleles in the world. Sure, you’ll see the occasional lathe and high-powered saw, but clothes pegs still help to form the ukulele’s shapely curves, and artisans still craft and assemble every instrument by hand. Often, a single ukulele can involve some 20 craftsman to manufacture; custom orders with a particular musicality and decorative features such as mother-of-pearl inlays can easily take a year or two to finish.

Mastering the Musical Flea

Ko’Aloha Crafting; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

Fred Kamaka Sr – Painted Pineapple; (Photo: Kamaka Ukulele)

Although widely regarded as uniquely Hawaii, the ukulele is actually the creative adaptation of a machete de braga, an instrument brought over in the late 1800s when Portuguese immigrants were contracted to work the sugar cane plantations. Translated, ukulele is the Hawaiin word for ‘jumping flea’, so nicknamed for its sublimely nimble sound that quickly enchanted islanders, and no one more so that Sam Kamaka Sr., founder of his namesake factory in 1916.


Ko’Aloha in Progress; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

The patriarch of this 3rd and 4th generation family business is best remembered for originating (and patenting) the ever-popular oval-shaped Pineapple Ukulele that today is one of several models the factory produces. Although the business is quite a sophisticated operation, the making of a Kamaka ukulele is still an exercise in patience and craftsmanship. It takes a minimum of 12 months to air dry the koa wood and stretch it in order to achieve the right resonance and tonality before the mahogany necks and rosewood fingerboards are added. Here, mass production means turning out perhaps 3,000 units a year, each one built to last a lifetime and longer because like the company, a Kamaka is often passed from one generation to the next.

As anomalous as it sounds for an instrument maker, Kamaka even employs one or two craftspeople who are hard of hearing. In 1955, when good employees were hard to find they hired two such individuals and quickly learned that their perceived disability turned out to be a benefit. Their heightened sense of touch enabled them to measure the thickness of the ukulele sound boxes with complete accuracy by drumming their fingers on the wood and feeling the vibrations – a tactic that is still used today, albeit more as a personal challenge to check the machine’s accuracy!

Ko’Alohas in Waiting; (Photo: Chris McBeath)

Celebrity Ukes

With players such as Tiny Tim, Daniel Ho, George Harrison and even Laurel & Hardy among their clients, Kamaka and Ko’Aloha are considered rival kings of the ukulele world. Once looked upon as rather an oddity, today the humble strummer is enjoying a remarkable renaissance. It is fast replacing the recorder as the musical instrument of choice in many schools – the uke’s four strings have youngsters playing in their first lesson. There are uke ensembles cropping up all over the world – Langley, BC, being one of the most celebrated, and it even has its own solo recording artist: Jake Shimabukuro is cited a hero by Rolling Stone magazine for his plucking prowess. And let’s not forget au courant celebs like Lady Gaga and Ziggy Marley who have also help make the ukulele a hip and happening must-have.

Touring either factory is an offbeat alternative to shopping along Waikiki’s boulevard nearby. Tours are unexpectedly interactive, interesting — and free.