The History of the Ukulele

aidan james jake
Enter a caption

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!

King Kalakaua and Edward Purvis

King Kalakaua (center) and
Edward Purvis (second from left).

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

Jake Shimabukuro playing the ukulele

A famous ukulele player, Jake Shimabukuro

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.

Maui AMPFest 2016: Honua/Earth Revival April 15th

HonuaAMPFest flareThe Honua/Earth Revival from The Maui AMPFest. Coming April 15th!

Produced and Edited by Phil Wikel and Peggy Johnson of Maui Salt and Sage Productions. 808-281-6020,

Info On Facebook

We’re looking for bands from all music genres to join the party.

The Maui AMPFest is part of
The Aloha Project:
Promoting Aloha, Music, Hawaiian Culture & sustainable living through international collaboration.

This Video Fest strives to showcase diverse bands from around the world with Hawaiian Culture and music as it’s centerpiece, thusly perpetuating the Spirit of Aloha and creating a worldwide bond between socially and politically conscious people and musicians from around the world.

Most recent Video Fest: Songs of Gratitude

Maui AMPFest – Songs of Gratitude

The Maui AMPFest is part of The Aloha Project: Promoting Aloha, Music, Hawaiian Culture & sustainable living through international collaboration. This Video Fest strives to showcase diverse bands from around the world with Hawaiian Culture and music as it’s centerpiece, thusly perpetuating the Spirit of Aloha and creating a worldwide bond between socially and politically conscious people and musicians from around the world. #‎Revolution #‎Evolution Maui AMPFest – Songs of Gratitude #thanksgiving #gratitude #aloha #mahalo #kealoha via @YouTube

All Four Videos:…

We Claim No Rights To Any Material In This Video Other Than Original Footage Shot and Edited by Mauisalt and Sage Productions.This video is for educational purposes and no money is made from it.

Most of my old friends tried their best not to learn anything in high school…


Most of my old friends tried their best not to learn anything in high school and many didn’t bother with college. They were neutral on most world events and many were anti-war.

After thirty-five years of getting baked everyday, they’re now militantly opposed to anything that doesn’t benefit them, horrified of anyone having any more material wealth than they do, and wouldn’t pause to help an old woman cross the street since their too busy staring at their smartphones (An ironic label for a phone that turns people into social zeros). On top of that, they’re on the front lines of the “Burn down the Middle East” crowd.

Are these people poster children for the adverse long-term effects of marijuana use or were they always just a bunch of sociopaths, banding together when times were good and, dispersing like rats when things were otherwise? Their politics are now what you might expect from banjo players in the “hollers” of Appalachia. They hate “ferreners,” environmentalists, and just about anyone who makes them feel like they should be doing something other than feeding their faces, satisfying their sex drive, one-upping the Jones’s, or sneering at the less fortunate.

We’re in a sad state of affairs in America. I don’t believe this sort of behavior is isolated to my old friends. I’ve observed shades of this in quite a lot of people.

“Friend” in America is really a relative term anymore. Being a friend is only acceptable when friends serve as playmates and props to occupy our time. Government fear propaganda probably started it all, and Facebook killed it by giving people a false sense of being in touch. No one’s in touch anymore. They’re just performing for each other. Hollywood and Rock Stars won the battle for the new breed of the superficial.

I’m not upset with friends anymore, however, I do fear for the lost souls of America.

Defining What It Means to be an American; Aside From False Moral Superiority

imagesDefining What It Means to be an American

(I’d prefer no commentary on this post. I doubt anyone will read it anyway. Everyone I talk to gets their information from some source that’s owned by the very people responsible for all of these problems; or they don’t pay attention to anything at all. Get off Facebook, turn off CNN, Fox News and any other big media outlet and think for yourselves. Do some research. It’s as close as a google search.)

Alcoholism in America

An estimated 18.5 million Americans present signs of alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence with an additional 7.2 million showing drinking behaviors associated with poor health and social interaction.

Poverty in America

America is the richest nation in history, yet we now have the highest poverty rate in the industrialized world with an unprecedented number of Americans living in dire straits and over 50 million citizens already living in poverty.

Obesity in America

America is home to the most obese people in the world. According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), obesity in adults has increased by 60% within the past twenty years and obesity in children has tripled in the past thirty years. A staggering 33% of American adults are obese.

Illiteracy in America

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey, 42 million adult Americans can’t read; 50 million can recognize so few printed words they are limited to a 4th or 5th grade reading level; one out of every four teenagers drops out of high school, and of those who graduate, one out of every four has the equivalent or less of an eighth grade education.

Unemployment in America

7.6 percent (at least that’s what they tell us)

Homelessness in America

On any given night in America, anywhere from 700,000 to 2 million people are homeless, according to estimates of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.

Child Abuse in America

Children are suffering from a hidden epidemic of child abuse and neglect. Over 3 million reports of child abuse are made every year in the United States.

Religion in America

83% of Americans claim to be Christians, mostly as long as it doesn’t require you to act in the manner of Christ himself, or follow the Ten Commandments. Onward Christian Soldiers? You’re doing a great job.

Is freedom of speech only for those who agree with the US Government? Are facts just an inconvenience? You might want to think about what you’re really angry about (while the governments of the West deflect your attention from anything that matters) when it’s ok for you to tell your own brothers to leave the country. Sounds a bit like “my way or the highway.” I think I’d rather stay here and work on making this a better country by internalizing, analyzing, and understanding it’s many faults. I believe in what this country originally stood for but it has a long way to go in making the dream a reality. And after about 239 years, I doubt it ever will. We’re going backwards as we speak.

I respect your right to feel the way you do, can you possibly respect mine? Focusing on the negative? No, just seeing it for what it is. America is like an alcoholic who refuses to get help, a child who’s never been told “no,” and a very large ego who just refuses to be wrong.

So go ahead and “find your bliss, enjoy the moment, and embrace your inner child.” I’ve got work to do.

We Don’t Need Your Stinking Closets – “Affordable” Housing in Hawaii


Sadly this article is as relevant today as it was when I wrote it in 2002.

We don’t need your stinking closets or,
high density housing is an insult to our dignity.
by Philip Scott Wikel

[A response to David Rolland’s “Diversified Housing” editorial in the “Ventura County Reporter,” Thursday, May 2, 2002].

There is a much larger issue at stake and we need to look at it with both the eyes of the visionary and those of the accountant. “Diversified housing” means, in large part, making sure to provide housing for folks on the lower end of the economic spectrum. The lower end, or better, the bottom end is where the problem begins to take shape. It is not my argument that these folks need housing but that the housing they are forced to accept is below any American who might still be capable of dreaming.*

The lower end has bottomed out after several generations of welfare. And welfare is at the heart of the deterioration of the American view of acceptable housing. The standard by which that which is acceptable has dropped to an intolerable low. Welfare has woven itself into the American quilt in many ways. Two of the larger groups within the world of welfare recipients include those who choose not to support themselves and those who would like to but feel its futility when they see that welfare can pay more than the average job for which they are skilled.

The term welfare is loosely defined here and has many forms. It is used as a blanket term for any form of governmental hand-out ie. HUD housing, food stamps. Before welfare, being poor was considered the greatest social ill in our country. And now, while fewer people might be suffering from the physical aspects of poverty, there is something that I believe should be of greater concern to us all, the effect of deprivation on the human psyche. The current generation is the first to look toward the bottom for its models. So-called “white trash” has been glorified as a form of entertainment. Young people have taken a “if you can’t beat them join them attitude” because they feel that the mountain they’ve come to climb is something that would have made even Sir Thomas Mallory hesitate.

What does the denial of a sense of accomplishment do to the minds of people who are poor or on welfare. I believe it has created a collective inferiority complex and thereby an unhealthy neurosis that invariably either lashes out or self-destructs. Gang violence and rioting (such as in LA ten years ago) are two very apparent examples of this lashing out and, before we jump to conclusions about race and get derailed from the topic at hand, we should remember that most every ethnic group in this country has at some time in our history been a party to gang violence. And suicide, alcoholism, and drug abuse are just symptoms of the larger problem. (Have you ever been short of cash? Doesn’t feel good. How about being short of cash for days, weeks, even years.)

And while this alone is quite disheartening, this collective complex has a deeper stigma attached to it that reaches all the way down to our roots. Our values have been compromised. While bending to include heretofore unacceptable levels of decadence for those who will sink lower and lower, and while honorable and bleeding, though sadly misdirected hearts, will chase after them, dragging the entire scale further down as they go, and social workers will run around sticking their fingers in holes in the dike, this problem can only be repaired with a concerted effort on the part of the whole and with a redefinition of what, as a culture, we find acceptable. We’ve come now to a point where the issues have been blurred and greyed to be almost indiscernible, so I’ll attempt to clarify.

We live in a market-driven economy, a capitalist society fueled by shiny trinkets, packaged and sold to us by Madison Ave (Watch television for 30 minutes and ask yourself if you didn’t see something you thought you might want or need in one of those commercials). Some of this stuff adds enjoyment and diversion to our lives. But now imagine you are someone without the means to purchase these things because your primary concern is maintaining a roof over your children’s heads and keeping food on the table. You work at least 40 hours per week, if not 50 or 60, but because your income seems to fall just a bit short of covering your expenses with each paycheck (rent alone is eating up an average of 50 percent of the average income)**, you never feel like you’re doing enough or providing enough or sometimes, even living at all.*** If you put this next to all of the unseen or intangible commodities we’re losing ie. kindness, sharing, trust, friendship and even love, commodities of the heart, you might say we may as well already be dead.

As you read on, bear the next couple of thoughts in mind:
Nearly 200 years ago Henry David Thoreau warned us to be wary of “spending too much life.” He further stated that he would rather sit on a pumpkin than on a chair for which he was making payments.

Some say: “if money’s a problem, then get a second job.” Sounds simple, a quick fix. However, with mom already working and the kids in daycare, when is it that the family is going to get to practice these “family values” so many continue to talk about but haven’t the time to practice. The question of how to keep a roof over our heads and this feeling that we need to keep up with Madison Avenue pre-occupies us so that the family has disintegrated into a loose grouping of strangers on divergent paths, struggling for their own individual survival; children with almost no interaction with their parents or any sort of reference point from which to view their world, and parents, so frazzled by trying to make ends meet, that they’re not at leisure to enjoy the families they’ve created or to offer their children something of themselves. It’s not just dad on the treadmill anymore, the whole family is right behind him, if not in front.

It’s no one’s fault and, at the same time, we’re not victims. It’s just that, as a people, as a tribe, and as a society we must relearn that we’re all a part of a greater whole, a very powerful collective spirit, a spirit that burns brightest and most beautiful with proper feeding and, of equal importance, diligent temperance; not tolerance, temperance. Temperance does things with intelligence, tolerance allows things to happen and turns a blind and pompous eye to it.

The mission is to serve the greater good, and this is where many of you will begin to squirm and question: “Well who decides what the greater good is?”
Here’s a starting point for the debate with one caveat. Do not go spinning into nothingness and forget the original mission.

I believe that no one’s rent or mortgage should equal more than one-fourth of their net income and one person should have at least 750 square feet of living space (Each additional person should be allotted an additional 250 square feet of space so that a family of four might have at least 1500 square feet of living space). With that calculated how might we adjust the average wage to close the gap. Business owners will balk at this but I contend that, if you can’t afford to pay someone a decent wage then you have no business doing business or you need to do something about the monopolistic, China-driven companies who are taking away your ability to function. This isn’t a quick fix. Native Americans believed in planning for the seventh generation from now. Meaningful goals are worth the wait and this will take some time. But time is a commodity that the powers that be have a great deal of, and often squander. So let’s stop arguing over subtle nuances, (patting ourselves on the back all the while for our skill at debating meaningless subjectivity), misleading statistics, or poorly written ordinances and codes. Think “Greater Good,” and you’ll be able to feel your way through.

* “High California rent pushes working poor into cheap motels”, 2001
** “California Housing Project,” Dept. of Housing and Community Development, 2001
*** “Housing takes bigger bite out of American Paychecks” – Kenneth Leventhal of Ernst & Young, 1999