Most historians will tell you the Hawaiian word ukulele, which can be translated as a bouncing or jumping flea, was first used to describe the nimble fingers of Portuguese musicians in the late 19th century.
Traveling to Hawaii for work on the islands' sugar plantations, Portuguese immigrants brought along four-stringed instruments known as machetes -- imagine a narrow ukulele with a longer neck -- for entertainment, and their unique sound later made a big impression on the Hawaiian people. It wasn't long before King Kalakaua, well known today as an ardent patron of the hula and Hawaiian music, became a fan of the instrument and grew quite accomplished on what was rapidly becoming known as the ukulele.
Skip ahead several years, and the ukulele was regularly featured in turn-of-the-century Hawaii tourism advertising campaigns, often featuring grass-skirt-sporting sirens draped in colorful leis while strumming a uke at the beach. Ukulele music later grew in popularity on the mainland, and several highly successful albums were produced between 1915 and 1930. Although the instrument has since survived all sorts of crazes followed by periods of lackluster interest, it's hard to imagine Hawaiian music today without the far-reaching influence of the ukulele.
For visitors intrigued by the little instrument's rich history, and exactly what it takes to make a first-rate version, Oahu offers a couple of entertaining tours of factories where top-quality ukuleles ($500 and up) are produced.
A highlight on the free tour of downtown Honolulu's Kamaka Hawaii Inc. is a close-up look at the very first pineapple-shaped ukulele, designed and crafted by Samuel Kamaka in the 1920s. Featured on a 2006 episode of PBS' "Antiques Roadshow," the instrument is an extraordinary piece of Hawaii's music history.
"When 'Antiques Roadshow' came by and appraised it and they said it was priceless, my wife wanted me to take it out and lock it up," said Fred Kamaka, Samuel Kamaka's son. "She said, 'If you leave it out, somebody is going to steal it,' but I told her I need it for the tour every day. I just finished using it again this morning."
Kamaka Hawaii dates to 1916, when Samuel Kamaka started selling ukuleles he built in the basement of his Honolulu home. A talented musician from a young age, Kamaka first started experimenting with ukulele manufacturing several years earlier.
"My father and a bunch of friends started imitating the Portuguese after the turn of the century and began making instruments then," said Fred Kamaka. "The first ones they made were real lousy. They used construction lumber, which doesn't give you any sound. But they learned from talking with the Portuguese and observing, and by 1910 they were making pretty good ukuleles."
Beginning at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, the Kamaka Hawaii tours are loaded with history along with an intimate look at the downtown factory facility and a step-by-step explanation of how to make a world-famous ukulele. Much of the visit's charm, however, comes straight from 85-year-old Fred Kamaka, who still conducts just about all of the tours himself and is full of great stories. Fred actually started helping his father build ukuleles at age 4.
"He wouldn't put me on a machine, where I could cut off my arm or a sander that would wear my finger down to the bone," said Kamaka. "No, he'd give me things to do where I could glue pieces together, or I could do sanding work by hand. I did all kinds of things."
Artisans of aloha
Not more than a mile from Honolulu's Bishop Museum, the KoAloha ukulele factory welcomes visitors twice daily on tours of their company showroom and manufacturing operations. Well known for bright smiles and the fragrant odor of woodwork, this shop is a great place for folks to enjoy an authentic look at Oahu and the chance to meet a fantastic group of artisans.
"A lot of the people traveling to Hawaii today are repeat visitors, and they've already seen a lot of what Waikiki has to offer," said Alan Okami, vice president of marketing for KoAloha. "Hawaii's not going to reinvent itself like Las Vegas. ... We're pretty steady here, but what we have to sell, aside from the beautiful year-round weather, is the spirit of aloha and the things that drive that imagery of Hawaii."
KoAloha started producing ukuleles nearly 15 years ago when the company's founder, Alan's father, Alvin Okami, decided he was ready to try something new.
"Dad is the idea man," Alan said. "A lot of people call him a renaissance man. ... He always has something going in the gears."
A gifted vocalist and oboist, Alvin Okami studied music at the University of Hawaii and spent years performing in Waikiki and as part of Honolulu's acclaimed Royal Hawaiian Band. Tiring later of the performer's life, Okami moved on to a range of projects, including a significant stretch manufacturing acrylic home products.
For now, at least, ukuleles seem to have cornered his focus, and there's no question about Okami's passion for sound and high-end instruments customers can truly love.
"We don't want our instruments to sit on a shelf like, 'Look at the beautiful ukulele I bought in Hawaii,'" said Alan Okami, vice president of marketing for KoAloha. "We want people to enjoy it. After all, our name is KoAloha ... which is translated as 'your love.' We want the ukulele to be an object of your affection, something that you look forward to playing."
Visit www.kamakahawaii.com and www.koaloha.com.