The ukelele has become one of the universal symbols of native Hawaiian culture. But like most things, its heritage is actually more multicultural than generally assumed.
In the late 1870's, the sugar plantations of Hawaii were booming, and there weren't enough local laborers to work them. The Portuguese Consul to Hawaii stepped in to solve the problem. He suggested to the Hawaiian Sugar Planters' Society that they recruit and incentivize laborers from the Portuguese Azores Islands and Madeira to fill the void. The climate and terrain in those places mirrored that of Hawaii and, most importantly, the Portuguese islands had a sugarcane industry that dated back 400 years. The workers who came to Hawaii were already versed in the trade. Unlike laborers from other parts of the world, the Portuguese were allowed to immigrate with their families, in order to encourage a stable lifestyle.
With the Portuguese came their instruments. One Madeiran worker in particular, Manuel Nunes, returned to his Portuguese woodworking roots and became a major contributor in transforming the Madeiran machete - a small, guitar-shaped instrument - into what we know as the ukelele. The labels on his early instruments read "M. Nunes, Inventor of the Ukulele and Taro Patch Fiddles in Honolulu in 1879."
The ruler of Hawaii during this period was King David Kalakaua. King Kalakaua was a young man with a passion for establishing the cultural legitimacy of native Hawaiian traditions, which were being eroded by the influence of missionaries. The King was an accomplished musician in his own right and found the ukelele to be the ideal instrument to accompany the hula, which he was committed to reviving as an artform. King Kalakaua became a patron of Mr. Nunes and incorporated the ukelele into performances at court gatherings, establishing its place among Hawaiian cultural icons.
As a young man first learning to craft ukeleles, Samuel Kamaka spent time in the workshop of Manuel Nunes, observing his techniques. In 1916 he started his own business making ukeleles out of his basement in Kaimuki. In the 1920's Kamaka developed an oval-shaped ukelele, which one of his friends noted looked like a pineapple. They painted the instrument to resemble the fruit, and the pineapple ukelele was born. It quickly became famous for its clear, bell-like sound, and cemented Kamaka as the premier maker of Hawaiian ukeleles.
When Kamaka's sons Sam Jr. and Fred were still in grade school, Kamaka had them report to the ukelele factory every day after school. They learned the trade and the business became Kamaka and Sons. Both boys, however, were drafted during WWII and then attended college on the GI bill after the war. But when Samuel Kamaka passed away, his sons returned to the family business. Today the day to day operations of Kamaka are run by their four sons, the grandsons of Samuel Kamaka Sr.
Kamaka ukeleles are known to be some of the best in the world, and have been the ukelele of choice of such renowned perfomers as George Harrison and the current ukelele phenom Jake Shimabukuro. Kamaka now makes nine models, all of native koa wood. While still the instrument most associated with native Hawaiian traditions like hula, the popularity of the ukelele has spread far beyond its island origins. King Kalakaua would approve.
Content produced by the Leland Little editorial team