The soundtrack to many a Hawaiian daydream includes the soothing tropical strum of a ukulele.
This small, four-stringed instrument is as iconically Hawaiian as palm trees, pristine beaches and turquoise waves, but it is also inextricably tied to Native culture. Inspired by a Portuguese instrument called the braguinha (or machete de braça), the ukulele was introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who landed on the shores in 1879 to work in the sugar cane fields.
Less that two weeks after they arrived, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that the immigrants, mostly from the island of Madeira, were “delighting the people with nightly street concerts.”
“The musicians are true performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music,” the article stated. By 1886, instrument shops had sprung up in Honolulu and the machete was redesigned and renamed ukulele, a Hawaiian word that means “jumping flea.”
The instrument, crafted of koa wood, gained in popularity, becoming a symbol of solidarity during the 1890s when Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani, was overthrown and the United States annexed the islands. As Native Hawaiians struggled to regain their culture, the ukulele also came to represent the principle of Aloha ??ina, or “love of land.”
Just this year, Hawaiian lawmakers passed a bill making the ukulele and the pahu, a Hawaiian drum, the official state instruments.
But long before it was official, the spirited sounds of the ukulele have been paired with dreams of Hawaii, even in popular music. Elvis relied on the ukulele for his hit “Blue Hawaii,” Tiny Tim’s fingers jumped over its strings in his falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” and Bette Midler once roared through “Ukulele Lady” on national television.
The ukulele has come a long way, but one family still depends on tradition to keep the instrument—and Hawaiian culture—alive. Kamaka Hawaii Inc., a Native Hawaiian, family-owned business in Honolulu, is the oldest continuous maker of ukuleles. In 2016, the company will celebrate 100 years in business.
“The ukulele has been part of our history, for Hawaii but also for our family,” said Fred Kamaka Jr., business manager for the company and grandson of its founder, Sam Kamaka Sr.
Sam Sr., a musician who favored the bass, guitar and violin, opened Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works in 1916 after a colorful trip to the New York World’s Fair in 1912 that left him stranded. He worked his way back to Hawaii by ship, via South America, and everywhere he landed, he went ashore to study guitars, Fred said.
“When he got back, his idea was to open a guitar shop,” Fred said. “But no one bought them because they wanted ukuleles.”
Fred called his grandfather the “total package.” Both a businessman and craftsman, Sam Sr. was always looking to improve the instrument. His legacy was the pineapple ukulele, a bigger, oval-shaped instrument that produced more sound. That instrument, which came out in the late 1920s, helped the company survive the Great Depression.
During the 30s, Sam Sr. introduced his two sons to the ukulele business. Although the boys were still in elementary school, they picked up the craft.
Now 93 and 90, respectively, Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. own Kamaka Hawaii Inc., located in downtown Honolulu and not too far from Waikiki Beach. The company operates mainly as a manufacturer selling instruments to dealers worldwide, but visitors can tour the factory or place custom orders.
Fred Jr., 51, is a third-generation ukulele maker who grew up with the instrument. He’s training the fourth generation at Kamaka, but he also remembers the role the ukulele played in preserving his Native culture.
“The thing that sort of saved the Hawaiian language was music,” he said. “My father’s generation would speak Hawaiian at home, but not at school. Because of music and songs, the language stayed, and the ukulele was part of bringing dance and culture back out into the open.”
For the Kamaka family, the ukulele has set the soundtrack for life.
“For us, we’ve grown up with the ukulele around all the time—in the house, in family members’ houses, at all of our gatherings,” said Chris Kamaka, production manager for Kamaka Hawaii and the family’s sole professional ukulele player. “We take it to the beach or parties. We use it for hula dancing or teaching. We use it for performances. It’s just always a sound you associate with Hawaii.”