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Where EAST meets the Northwest

FAMILY BUSINESS. Kamaka Ukuleles from Hawai’i have been the gold standard for ukuleles worldwide. Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele offers insight into a family of businessmen and artists and how they work together to preserve the family legacy. Pictured are Sam Kamaka Jr. and Fred Kamaka Sr. holding a photo of Sam Kamaka Sr. (Photo/Kamaka family, courtesy of Pacific Islanders in Communications)

From The Asian Reporter, V20, #15 (May 3, 2010), page 10.

Family business makes beautiful music

Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele

Directed by Stuart Yamane

Produced by Stuart Yamane and Dawn Kaniaupio

Distributed by Pacific Islanders in Communications

Airing Thursday, May 13 at 10:30pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting

By Julie Stegeman

The Asian Reporter

For most people, a mention of the word ukulele conjures images of the sun, sand, and surf in Hawai’i, and perhaps a tropical drink. Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele, a documentary airing on Oregon Public Broadcasting, details the history of the ukulele as well as that of the Kamaka family, which for three generations has lovingly handcrafted the unique instrument at its Honolulu-based business.

The history of the four-stringed instrument began in 1879 when three Portuguese immigrants in the cabinet-making profession arrived in Hawai’i. They were believed to have been the original builders of ukuleles. Kamaka family patriarch Samuel Kamaka apprenticed with one of the men, Manuel Nunes, in 1910 and learned the intricate craft of building ukuleles.

The family business was founded in 1916, when Kamaka began making his own ukuleles in a makeshift factory located in his basement. His two sons, Sam Jr. and Fred, learned the business from their father, but instead of following in their father’s footsteps, Sam Jr. set out to earn a master’s degree in entomology from Oregon State University and Fred pursued a career in the military, serving in the Korean War.

When Sam Sr. became sick in 1953, Sam Jr. returned home to care for his terminally ill father and decided to take over the family business. Fred, too, returned after being discharged from the military and ran the front office while Sam Jr. took charge of manufacturing. Fred spoke of his father’s advice: "If you take over this business and you use the family name, don’t make junk," the elder Kamaka told him.

The popularity of the ukulele has waxed and waned over the years, experiencing booms during the early part of the 20th century as well as the 1950s. The instrument is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest. Ukulele historian Nuni Walsh said of Kamaka: "He was the only Hawaiian maker left after about 1930 and he continued," she said. "He persevered through the good times and the bad."

The third generation of Kamaka men — sons of Fred and Sam Jr. — are now running the business. "We’ll always try to keep in mind when we try and do something that this is a product that was created before us," says Casey Kamaka, one of Sam Sr.’s three grandsons now involved in the business. "We are the last of the old breed of ukulele makers, and we do feel the pressure to keep it going," says Fred Kamaka Jr., son of Fred Sr.

The Kamaka family extends to the employees at the business, two of which are hearing impaired. "As deaf people, we can hear the vibrations through the wood," says George Morita, who has worked at Kamaka for 47 years, using sign language. "I know just from tapping if it will sound right."

The documentary includes interviews with ukulele musicians, who give impromptu concerts on the diminutive instruments. "Ukuleles are like children, they’re all different," says Gordon Mark. "Every one has its own personality." Popular musician Jake Shimabukuro gives an idea of why the Kamaka business has stayed strong when others have failed: "Their heart and soul is in this instrument," he says, while strumming the ukulele in his hands.

The high quality of the instruments is a source of pride to the Kamaka family. Sons learn the trade by working side-by-side with their fathers: how to choose wood, shape the pieces, and bind them all together to create a beautifully toned product. "Family means everything and this is how it’s always been," says Liz Kamaka, the wife of Fred Kamaka Sr. "This is how the company survived."

So enjoy Heart Strings and learn a little about Hawai’i, the ukulele, and the Kamaka family while listening to the distinct and sweet sounds of the small, stringed instrument. Heart Strings airs Thursday, May 13 from 10:30 to 11:00pm on Oregon Public Broadcasting. To verify showtime, call (503) 293-1982 or visit <www.opb.org>. To learn more, visit <www.kamakahawaii.com>.