Hawaiians fell in love with the music and the Portuguese instrument called the braguinha when it was first introduced to them. Originating on the island of Madeira, the instrument had sailed to Hawaii aboard a merchant ship in 1879. Virtually claiming it as their own with volumes of their own distinctive music, Hawaiians renamed it ukulele, which translates as “jumping flea,” a reference to the speed of the Portuguese musicians’ fingers as they leaped across the fingerboard.
The most famous ukulele design, invented in Hawaii by well-respected ukulele maker Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka, is the Pineapple Ukulele. Kamaka’s purpose for this shape was to make a small ukulele with a fuller, warmer, more resonant sound than the traditional figure-eights of the time. Some say there is another story: the pineapple uke was just easier to make without have to bend the sides. Acacia koa, the largest endemic tree in Hawaii, was the manufacturing wood of choice: it is an exotic wood with unusual curly grain and beautiful color that produces superior tonal qualities in the finished product. Kamaka’s friends thought the shape looked like a pineapple, and when one artist friend painted the front to resemble one, the Pineapple Ukulele was born!
Kamaka began manufacturing his uniquely-shaped ukuleles in the mid 20s and obtained his patent—depicted here in our Pineapple Ukulele design—Design No. 74,178, in 1928. It became an instant success worldwide. Though competition was stiff from an estimated fifteen other ukulele manufacturers in Hawaii alone at the time, the Sam Kamaka, Sr. pineapple ukulele signature design was probably instrumental in helping his company stay in business after the ukulele boon of the 20s and 30s faded in the 40s. By then, the Kamaka company was the last one standing.
Today, Kamaka Hawaii, Inc. is still manufacturing pineapple ukuleles after nearly 100 years in business. The old Kamaka Pineapples are some of the most collectible of ukuleles now—especially the “painted pineapple.” Its endurance is, perhaps, a true testimonial to both the original design, and, to the advice Sam Kamaka, Sr. is said to have handed down to his sons: “If you make instruments and use the family name, don’t make junk.”