On South Street in Honolulu sits an unassuming, two-story building, not much bigger than Razorcake HQ. Nothing about it really stands out except for a small sign on the front with the familiar k on top of a k. It’s easy to drive by without noticing, heading either for the beach or downtown. I almost missed it, whipping into the parking lot only at the last second. Inside, they were making a little magic in the form of a Kamaka ukulele.
Now, I can almost hear you, Razorcake reader, groaning. Perhaps it’s because I assume you poop while you read this. Groaning helps. Perhaps I’m right in guessing that you’re about to turn the page, grumbling, “Ukulele’s are not punk rock,” and “Geez, I really need to give myself a courtesy flush.” And, damn it, you’re right on both counts.
Ukuleles are not punk. I know that one of the guys from the Jennifers has an act called the Punk Rock Ukulele. I know there are hundreds of videos on YouTube of lonely girls playing uke versions of Green Day songs. And, yeah, Gugug’s uke covers of Ramones songs are pretty rad. But they’re not punk rock. I’m okay with that. I’m hoping we can relax and admit that there are some things like Stax Records, surfing, socialized medicine, and indie novels from Featherproof Books that are ideologically awesome and don’t have to be punk to be appreciated. And I’m sliding Kamaka ukuleles into that mix.
The ukulele is a funny instrument. I have a friend who refers to them as the pugs of the music world, because she can’t help smiling every time she sees one. It’s indelibly linked in our imagination with Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips, or, if we’re luckier, Benny Hill singing “Everyone Wants My Fanny.” It’s an instrument for men who are so comfortable with their penis size that they can drive an MG convertible and skinny dip in a cold pool and listen to April March. The uke is supposed to be funny. That’s part of the point.
Another part of the point, though, is that it’s an instrument of resistance. The instrument itself was born from the cavaquinho, a small guitar brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. Through that little guitar, we can see the blessing and curse of colonialism. The cavaquinho was adapted into a ukulele by Hawaiian musicians in the late nineteenth century, and it quickly became entrenched in Hawaiian culture. Now everyone knows what a ukulele is while even I have to go back to the dictionary to make sure I’m spelling cavaquinho right. So that’s the blessing. The curse lies in the fact that the cavaquinho is the instrument of the Portuguese immigrants who came to Hawaii as overseers for the Dole plantations and the Big Five sugar plantations. Dole and the Big Five pressured President William McKinley to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy and annex the region as a territory. The Portuguese overseers kept the plantation labor force in check through it all. They oversaw not only the horrible exploitation of immigrant labor, but actual slavery on those plantations. Dole and the Big Five used “indentured servants” until Hawaii became a state in 1959. So colonialism was a mixed bag for the Hawaiians. American corporate interests got the islands and the money and were able to reinstall the plantation system that had been outlawed on the mainland. The Hawaiians got the ukulele. It’s a pretty lousy trade for the Hawaiians, sure. But let’s not sell it too short. They did get the ukulele out of the deal. That’s a hell of a lot better than what the Iraqis are getting from Halliburton.
And I think there’s something to be said about this kind of cultural appropriation of the ukulele. Cultural appropriation in general can be a positive thing. Sometimes we forget that in the punk community. We’ve seen too many great things of ours appropriated in bad ways. It’s heartbreaking to see manufactured pop stars being marketed as “punk” or wearing shirts that say “I ♥ Punk.” It’s even more of a bummer to see the trend when, about a decade ago, not selling out to major labels became such a powerful ideal of the punk community that major labels started to just put out classic rock bands in Hot Topic clothes and bill them as punk (see: Good Charlotte). But we’ve done our own share of appropriating, too. We took the idea of fanzines from movie buffs and Star Trek geeks. We took the idea of DIY publishing from resistance groups that run the gamut from Ben Franklin to ‘60s hippies. Just about every pop punk song is an appropriation of the Ramones’ appropriation of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Bobby Fuller. I love The Clash, but I cringe to think of what they would’ve been if Joe Strummer hadn’t been stealing from Lee “Scratch” Perry. And, hell, even I know how to play several dozen punk songs on the uke. Come by my place with a six-pack of beer. I’ll play them for you until you run away screaming.
The point being, appropriation in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. When people exploit independent culture so they can make money, that sucks. But when the people who are not in power appropriate things from the people in power and change those things into something unique and organic, it’s not only okay. It’s a way of challenging those who are in power.
Which is exactly what the ukulele has done. It’s said, “Fuck the cavaquinho, man. I’m gonna do something all my own.” And the uke, like Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, has done an amazing job of making bad songs sound good. Check out Iz Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow.” Listen to the uke in that song. So fucking cool.
My brother-in-law Rien got me into the ukulele. It was about six years ago. I was hanging around another brother-in-law’s place in suburban Sacramento, bored out of my gourd, when Rien broke out his Kamaka and started strumming. I noticed that all the songs he played had only three chords. Hell, I thought. I can play a three-chord song. They’re the soundtrack to my life. Rien told me that, if I could play guitar, I could play uke. And I can play guitar. So I picked up my other brother-in-laws uke, Rien taught me the F, Bb, and C7 chords, and we spent the afternoon playing the thirty-seven Hawaiian songs that use no more than those three chords.
A few weeks later, I bought a cheap ukulele of my own. I practiced those chords, learned a few others, and adapted a few punk songs for the uke. They just didn’t sound as good as when I’d played on Rien’s Kamaka, though.
A couple of summers ago, I found myself stranded in Indiana, PA (for reasons why, see my column in the last issue). About a month after my birthday, I got a package from my mom. It was a ten-dollar, pink ukulele with flowers and the logo of a Cocoa Beach tourist shop on it. I was a little confused. As luck had it, my mom called right around the time I opened the package and started scratching my head. I said, “I got your package.”
She laughed. “Don’t you just hate it? I saw that in the store, and I just knew you’d hate it!”
Because that’s my mom. She’ll wait until a month after my birthday before sending me a present so that she’ll have extra time to find something I really hate. She’s hilarious.
She’s also a model for mothers of punk rockers everywhere. She knows that, if you want to make a punk happy, get him something he can really hate. Because here’s the worst thing about the whole episode: I tuned up the fishing line strings on the little pink flowered uke and was jamming along to the Replacements “If Only You Were Lonely” within minutes of getting off the phone with her.
The thing about the pink ukulele was that it sounded worse than my cheap one by the exact same degree that my cheap one sounded worse than Rien’s Kamaka. So I became obsessed with Kamaka. I looked into the company and found that they have been a family business for almost a hundred years (93 to be exact). That, during World War II, they hired deaf luthiers to make their ukuleles. The deaf craftsman knew they got the sound right when they could feel it. And this is a cool thing about Kamakas: when you play them, you can feel the song on your chest. It’s unlike any other uke I’ve played.
As far as I know, there’s still at least one deaf luthier making ukes at Kamaka.
I also learned that Kamakas sound so good because the front plate—where that rich sound comes from—is made from solid Koa wood from the Big Island, and that the ukes are so popular and the shop so small that you can’t buy one from their store. You have to order one and they’ll make it for you.
I went to the headquarters in Honolulu. They let me play all their ukes. I played their $1400 deluxe soprano, which is funny because it looks like so much like a toy. And what does it sound like? It sounds like fourteen hundred dollars. Fucking amazing.
I have my own Kamaka, though not the deluxe. One that I found after searching and searching, waiting for one in my price range, and finally stumbling across it in a Claremont music store. It’s from the sixties and it had to be reconditioned by the shop, but, unlike most things from the sixties (Sonics and MC5 notwithstanding), it sounds great.
The last time my wife’s side of the family got together, we broke out the ukes. I started playing a ‘20s tune, “5 foot 2,” which my grandfather used to play for me on his tenor guitar when I was little. My four-year-old nephew, like a true prodigy, told me to play it faster. I played as fast as I could. He and his three-year-old sister made their own circle pit in my living room. I love how things come around.
So now you may be thinking to yourself, all right, Sean, I took your advice on the courtesy flush but I’m still sitting here, 1800 words later, My legs are falling asleep on the toilet seat, and I’m waiting for you to get to the point. Well, maybe there isn’t one, really. Maybe I just wanted to spend a few minutes on the beautiful and absurd. Maybe that’s enough for today.
Author’s note: This is the eighteenth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #53. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.