History of the 'Ukulele
Discover where the ‘ukulele came from, the pioneers who built the first ‘ukuleles, and those who kept this beautiful instrument going so that have have the ‘ukuleles we know and love today!
Table of Contents
Let's Start at the Beginning
Three immigrants in particular are credited with building the first ‘ukuleles. Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias were Madeiran cabinet makers
Dias is the first luthier in Hawaii for whom there is any documentation: the 1884 Honolulu directory lists Augusto Dias, guitar and furniture maker, as living and working in Chinatown at 11 King Street. In addition to his skills in building beautiful instruments, Dias was a talented ukulele player. He was among those who entertained King David Kalakaua in the royal bungalow on the grounds of Iolani Palace. Nobody knows definitively who made the first “ukulele” but nearly everybody agrees that Nunes, Santo, and Dias all played a role in the transformation of the Madeiran machete to the Hawaiian ukulele. Dias, Santo, and Nunes were all responsible for providing the instruments that allowed early musicians to initially establish the popularity of the ukulele.
Ukulele pioneer Augusto Dias was born on Oct. 3, 1842, in Funchal, Madeira, the son of barrelmaker Joao Dias and his wife Maria Julia. His early years were marked by the series of natural disasters that plagued Madeira in the mid-19th century — famine, a cholera epidemic, a fungus that devastated the island’s vineyards — but he survived to become a marceneiro, or cabinetmaker. He is supposed to have been a talented singer and player on both the viola (guitar) and machete, the ukulele’s immediate ancestor, and to have played in string orchestras in Funchal. He was one of the first Madeirans to respond to the call for contract workers in Hawaii, and he and his family arrived in Honolulu on August 23, 1879 aboard the Ravenscrag — the same ship that also carried fellow ukulele pioneers Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espirito Santo.
Augusto, who according to family tradition was shocked to learn that he had been hired as a plantation hand, worked on the islands of Hawaii and Kauai before returning to Honolulu by 1883. He is the first luthier in Hawaii for whom there is any documentation: the 1884 Honolulu directory lists Augusto Dias, guitar and furniture maker, as living and working in Chinatown at 11 King Street. For the next 16 years, he worked from a variety of small shops in downtown Honolulu, using his craftsmanship and playing and singing skills to help Nunes and Santo popularize the new instrument that quickly became known as the ukulele. Together with fellow immigrants Joao Fernandes and Joao Luiz Correa, Augusto was among those who entertained King David Kalakaua in the royal bungalow on the grounds of Iolani Palace. According to Christina, the oldest of his nine children, the king was a regular visitor to the Dias shop, she serving as translator for the king, who could not speak Portuguese, and Augusto, who could not speak English.
Tragedy struck when Augusto’s shop was destroyed in Honolulu’s Chinatown fire of Jan. 22, 1900. For the next three years, he went back to the cabinetmaker’s trade, working for the Porter Furniture Co. By 1904, he was once again working as a guitar maker out of his Luso Street home, and in 1907 he opened up a new shop on Union Street. He continued to work on Union Street until 1910, when a serious illness, apparently pulmonary tuberculosis, forced him into retirement. He died on Luso Street on Feb. 5, 1915, just a few days before the opening of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, where the ukulele and Hawaiian music began a national fad. He is buried in Makiki Cemetery in Honolulu.
Jose do Espirito Santo
Jose do Espirito Santo was making instruments in Honolulu by the mid-1880s. He operated out of a variety of downtown locations, and was the first of the three original makers to specifically advertise the sale of “ukuleles” in 1898. Nobody knows definitively who made the first “ukulele” but nearly everybody agrees that Nunes, Santo, and Dias all played a role in the transformation of the Madeiran machete to the Hawaiian ukulele. Although Dias and Santo did not stay in the business as long as Nunes, all three were responsible for providing the instruments that allowed early musicians to establish the popularity of the ukulele in Hawaii in the late 1800s.
Ukulele pioneer Jose do Espirito Santo was born on Aug. 27, 1850 in Funchal, Madeira, the son of Antonio do Espirito Santo and his wife Josefa Joaquina. Like Augusto Dias and Manuel Nunes, Espirito Santo worked as a marceneiro, or cabinetmaker, in Funchal, before boarding the Ravenscrag with his family to come to Hawaii as a contract worker.
Where Santo spent his first years has not been determined, but by 1884-85 he appears to have returned to Honolulu, where he worked as a cabinetmaker at C.E. Williams’ Pioneer Furniture House on Fort Street. By 1886, he had his own downtown guitar maker’s shop, one of the first three original ukulele makers. He operated out of a variety of downtown locations, and was the first of the three to specifically advertise the sale of ukuleles (1898).
Tragically, Santo, a diabetic, died in Honolulu on June 10, 1905 “of blood poisoning that arose from self-treatment of a corn,” as the Sunday Advertiser reported. He is buried in the King Street Cemetery in Honolulu.
Kamaka and Martin Start Their Legacy
From the Kamaka Website
Shortly after the turn of the century, Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka began crafting Koa wood ukuleles from the basement of his Kaimuki, Hawaii home. In 1916, he formed his one-man shop, “Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works,” and soon established a solid reputation for making only the highest quality ukuleles.
In 1921, Kamaka Ukulele established a shop at 1814 South King Street. In the mid-20s, Sam Kamaka laid out a pattern for a new oval-shaped ukulele body. His friends remarked that it looked like a pineapple, so one of Sam’s artist friends painted the front to duplicate the tropical fruit. A few years later in 1928, Sam Kamaka patented the design. Thus began the original Pineapple Ukulele, which produced a resonant, mellow sound distinct from the traditional figure-eight. The Pineapple Ukulele became an instant success worldwide, and continues to be Kamaka’s signature ukulele to this day.
During the 30s, Sam Sr. introduced his two sons, Samuel Jr. and Frederick, to the craft of ukulele-making, even though the boys were only in elementary school. In 1945, the business was reorganized as “Kamaka and Sons Enterprises.” Sam Jr. and Fred Sr. were then drafted into the Army, and after serving in WWII, both brothers attended college on the GI bill. After graduating from Washington State University, Fred Sr. began a career in the Army, while Sam Jr. earned a masters degree and went on to pursue a doctorate in entomology at Oregon State University.
In 1952, due to illness, Sam Sr. went into semi-retirement and hauled his equipment to his Lualualei Homestead farm in Waianae. When he became seriously ill the following year, Sam Jr. moved back to Hawaii to care for his father. Sam Sr. died in December 1953, after hand-crafting koa ukuleles for over 40 years.
Immediately following Sam Sr.’s death, Sam Jr. put aside his personal career aspirations to continue the family business. Building on the knowledge he had picked up from his father, Sam Jr. restored the factory at the previous 1814 S. King Street location. In 1959, the company expanded to its current location at 550 South Street.
In 1968 Kamaka and Sons incorporated and then became “Kamaka Hawaii, Inc.” After retiring from the Army in 1972, Fred Sr. joined the business as its general manager. Along the way, Sam Jr.’s sons, Chris and Casey, also got involved with the company as did Fred Sr.’s son, Fred Jr. Together the sons now play major roles at Kamaka Hawaii, Inc.: Chris is the production manager, Casey crafts the custom orders, and Fred Jr. is the business manager. Other young family members are also helping with the business, carrying the Kamaka tradition into the fourth generation.