Friday, March 21, 2008

Kamaka Soprano Ukulele

Portuguese sailors introduced small steel-string guitars called a braguinhas to Hawaii in the 1880s. The locals modified them by replacing the strings with gut and changing the tuning, dubbing the new instrument the "ukulele" (oo-koo-lay-lay, or "jumping flea" in Hawaiian).

Many people think ukuleles are crappy sounding instruments, but that's because they tried a Chinese- or Philippine-made fake ukulele picked up at Hilo Hatties as a souvenir. Please don't write off the ukulele. A well-made uke in the hands of even a mediocre strummer has a curious emotional plangency that can simultaneously evoke a smile and tears from listeners.

My Kamaka soprano (and to me, the soprano size is the only real size in the ukulele family) has that plangent quality. Yes, it costs over $400, which is about $385 more than the ukuleles most people have had the misfortune of playing, but the extra money buys you an instrument from a family-owned business that's been making ukuleles for 92 years and which employs many deaf people, who, according to this history of the Kamaka Ukulele Company "are very good at making musical instruments, as they have a fine sense of touch and can gauge the correct thickness of the sound boxes by drumming their fingers on the wood and feeling the vibrations."

Kamaka Ukulele Company
550 South Street
Honolulu, HI 96813

A free guided tour of the Kamaka factory is given every Tuesday - Friday at 10:30 am.

Read the Kamaka story here: Link