Above: Jake Shimabukuro stops in at soundcheck with musician, Aidan James.
The name ‘ukulele’ is the traditional Hawaiian name that was given to a small instrument called the machete (machete de braga), which was originally developed in the Madeira Islands of Portugal. The machete itself is a descendent of the early European and Middle Eastern plucked stringed instruments (such as the lute), is a member of the guitar family, and goes by several different names including the cavaquinho, braguinha, manchhete and cavaco. The machete was brought into Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, who moved to the islands to work in the sugar cane fields in the late 1800’s. Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, who arrived in Hawaii on the Ravenscrag in 1879 from the Portuguese Islands of Madeira are believed to have been the first makers of the Hawaiian ‘ukulele’.
There are several different legends about how the machete got its Hawaiian name; the ‘ukulele’ – although there is not enough evidence to prove that any one of these stories is, in fact, the truth. The word ‘ukulele’ itself translates roughly to ‘jumping flea’ in English. One story of how the ukulele got its name states that when one of the passengers on the Ravenscrag, Joao Fernandes, reached the Honolulu port, he was so overjoyed after four months at sea that he immediately jumped off the ship and began playing folk songs from Madeira on the wharf. The Hawaiians who saw Fernandes play the instrument thought that his fast-moving fingers looked like fleas jumping over the fingerboard – and so the name for the instrument was born. Another account of how the ukulele got its name is based on the understanding that the Englishman Edward Purvis played the instrument. Edward Purvis acted as an Assistant Chamberlain to King David Kalakaua, the last reigning King of Hawaii, and a man who was very influential in the early life of the ukulele. Purvis was thought to have been nicknamed ‘ukulele’ due to his small stature and his energetic personality. Eventually, it is thought that the instrument that he played for the King also adopted this name. Yet more tales about how the ukulele got its name survive, with several different translations of the term being used as evidence. The last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, has been recorded as explaining that the term ‘ukulele’ in fact means ‘the gift that came here’ (with ‘uku’ translating to ‘gift or reward’ and ‘lele’ translating to ‘to come’) which indeed is a much different perspective, and one that has nothing at all to do with fleas!
After its arrival in Hawaii, the ukulele was quickly adopted into Hawaiian culture. King David Kalakaua was very fond of the small instrument, which is acknowledged as a key factor that led to the ukulele becoming so popular. King Kalakaua was passionate about developing Hawaiian culture in the face of the opposition posed by missionary groups, who themselves saw native cultures as uncivilized, and whose aim was to convert native peoples to Christian worship and Christian values. King Kalakaua promoted the fusion of modern art forms with traditional aspects of Hawaiian culture in order to re-ignite interest in Hawaiian culture. It is King Kalakaua who promoted the ukulele as a Hawaiian instrument, and used the instrument at formal royal functions, to play traditional Hawaiian music, and to accompany hula.
After the Portuguese settlers Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo had finished their work on the early Hawaiian sugar plantations, they are thought to have returned to their woodworking roots in Honolulu, the capital city of Hawaii. In 1889, all three men were listed in the city directory as being ‘guitar makers’. As the ukulele became more popular under the patronage of King David Kalakaua, more ukuleles were made by these three men. The most successful of the three was Manuel Nunes, who continued to make ukuleles after the instrument was introduced to the American mainland, and whose sons continued to manufacture ukuleles after him.
While the machete travelled around the world along with Portuguese settlers, the Hawaiian take on the small four-stringed instrument was not introduced to a mainstream American audience until the early 1900’s. The ukulele made a particular impression on mainland Americans during the Panama Pacific International Exposition that was held in San Francisco in 1915. The Exposition featured performances by Hawaiian ukulele players, performing as both soloists and in groups, who were very popular with the fair visitors. After the ukulele began to acquire fans in mainland America, the ukulele was then adopted by local mainland musicians, who used it to play traditional Hawaiian music (which, along with the ukulele, had become more popular among American citizens), and additionally introduced the ukulele into other genres. The popularity of the ukulele boomed through 1915-1920, with Hawaiian music becoming as popular as current mainland music. Mainland American instrument manufacturers saw an opportunity in making ukuleles, and manufacturers in New York and other major American cities began producing and marketing the instrument; causing some tension between the Hawaiian-based and the larger mainland American manufacturers. Despite this tension the popularity of the ukulele kept growing in America well into the 1920’s, and ukulele sales in general continued to increase.
The increasing popularity of the ukulele led to the manufacturing of inexpensive models which gave many people access to learning the ukulele. The ukulele built up a reputation as a good beginner’s instrument because of its relatively low price and small, portable size. Thousands of ukuleles were produced through the 1920’s, and the ukulele became one of the musical icons of the Jazz age.
The ukulele slowly declined in popularity through the 1930’s, momentarily being revived in the late-1940’s through to the 1950’s with some American servicemen bringing the instrument home with them from Hawaii after World War Two. The popularity of pop-rock music caused the ukulele to fade into the background in the 1960’s, although it still existed in mainstream consciousness with the likes of The Arthur Godfrey Show and Tiny Tim’s 1968 hit Tiptoe through the Tulips. The insanely popular band ‘The Beatles’ were very fond of the ukulele, however rarely played the instrument and despite their endorsement the little ukulele lay very quietly in its case from the 1970’s until its revival in the 1990’s.
The Ukulele Around the World
Other countries have also adopted the humble ukulele into their musical repertoires, including (most notably) Japan and Canada. The ukulele was introduced into Japan in the early 1900’s, and was adopted along with Hawaiian and Jazz music. While the ‘western’ instrument was banned during World War Two, the popularity of the instrument surged after the war.
Canada, on the other hand, was one of the first countries to initiate teaching the ukulele in schools (aside from Hawaii) and many music students learnt the ukulele under the school music program devised by John Doane.
The Ukulele Today
The ukulele is once again enjoying a period of popularity with modern audiences around the western world. The uke has been picked up from music stores, (or pulled out of the attic) and is again being celebrated for its versatility, easy-travelling small-size and its ease of learning. The internet has played a significant role in the ukulele boom, with websites and video tutorials being dedicated to providing easy-learning resources for beginners, many of which are frequented by new players in their hundreds.
The ukulele has also been widely celebrated for its increasingly social side. The ease of strumming along to sung melodies and playing together has made this little instrument a popular choice as a second instrument, and has also led to the formation of ukulele clubs, orchestras and social groups around the world. Ukulele performers often encourage concert-goers to bring along their own ukes and join in for a song or two, and group-learning of the ukulele is increasingly popular (as opposed to formal, one-on-one lessons). The ukulele has also been more widely used as a beginners’ instrument for children in recent years.
Although the ukulele is still associated with traditional Hawaiian music and culture, the development of different types of ukulele has led to the popularization of the instrument in many different musical settings. Over the past twenty years the ukulele revival has maintained momentum, with a number of ukulele players becoming very popular well into the new millennium. The 1990’s ukulele revival has also led to the instrument being used increasingly in popular (pop) music performances and recordings, as well as being a common instrument for performing covers of popular music too.