Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele

Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele premiered May 2009.

For nearly 100 years, Kamaka and Sons' ukulele — produced from their tiny shop in Honolulu — have been the gold standard for ukulele worldwide. This program is a story about the age-old values of hard work, fortitude, honesty and creativity from a distinctly Hawaiian point of view. Rooted in such concepts as aloha (unconditional love), malama (to serve and care for) and pono (doing what's right), this film offers insight into a family of businessmen and artists and into how they work together to preserve the family tradition of success and artistry.

Hawaii Kamaka UkuleleKamaka Hawaii has made ukulele for nearly 100 years (Credit: Chris Magpoc).
Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka (1890 — 1953) was one of Hawaii's original ukulele makers. Of all the early Hawaiian manufacturers who were crafting instruments at the start of the 20th century, only one, Kamaka Hawaii, remains in business today. From those early beginnings, the Kamaka ukulele is now considered the finest instrument of its kind made anywhere in the world.

History is in essence biography and sometimes, we can best understand history through the lives of the people who've shaped it and who, in turn, were shaped by it. The Kamaka family history is about as close as one can come to the actual history of the ukulele itself. From Samuel's apprenticeship with Manuel Nunes, the Portuguese man who first introduced the instrument to the Islands to creating "the Jake," an ukulele model for virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, Kamaka Hawaii has been at the forefront of the ukulele's presence in the world.

Kamaka BrothersBrothers Sam Kamaka, Jr. and Fred Kamaka, Sr. pose with a vintage Kamaka ukulele and a picture of their father at his induction in to the Hall of Fame at the Ukulele Expo 2000 (Credit: Ukulele Hall of Fame).
Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele chronicles this family's legacy and tells the surprising tale of how a family business and a most unlikely musical instrument from Hawaii survives the test of time. It's the story of how the 20th century transformed Hawaii and why some things should never change. This is a story of choices and roads taken and how knowledge and values are passed from one generation to the next indelibly connected by strings of history and affection.

Quotes From Main Characters

 "Even 30 years ago we found to a great degree here a family model — passing on of one talent to the next generation the family. Continuing doing it is a pretty rare thing. You still see it in Spain and some degree France, but it strikes me that it is at once old-worldly and also very Hawaiian to just have this unity of family."
     — Bart Potter, Mill owner who sells wood to Kamaka Hawaii

 "Family means everything and this is how it's always been. This is how the company survived."
     — Liz Kamaka, wife of Fred Kamaka, Sr.

 "The big secret of anything is quality control, but for us and my dad it has been selection of wood. Koa has been a traditional wood that has been fabulous for us it has the vibration quality."
     — Sam Kamaka Jr.

 "We're the last of the original ukulele makers here in Hawaii, so all those original family businesses that started out the same time as my grandfather — you know in the early 1900s — they are not around anymore. So we are the last of the old breed of ukulele makers, and we do feel the pressure to keep it going."
     — Fred Kamaka Jr., son of Fred Kamaka Sr., 3rd generation in the business

 "He said that if you take over this business and you use the family name, don't make junk. And we've applied the same thing to our sons, our four sons who are now running the business."
     — Fred Kamaka Sr., son of Sam Kamaka Sr., 2nd generation

Heart Strings: The Story of the Kamaka Ukulele was produced by Dawn K. Kaniaupio, a partner in 4 Miles LLC.

4 Miles LLC is the producer of the Merrie Monarch Festival, where much of the ukulele music of Hawaii can be heard.

Visit the Kamaka family's Web site at http://www.kamakahawaii.com/ to read more about the family's story and see some of their handcrafted ukuleles.


Funded by:

Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Presented by:


Pacific Islands in Communication
PBS Hawaii

Produced by:

Alpha Media

© 2009 Alphamedia Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Text by Dawn Kaniaupio. Photos courtesy of Chris Magpoc and the Ukulele Hall of Fame.

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