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The History of the Ukulele

Ukulele Hawaii

Ukulele.  [Hawaiian Tourism Authority (HTA)/ Daeja Faris].

Hawaii is a true melting pot of many ethnicities, from those with Hawaiian ancestry, to others from Asian backgrounds as well as residents of European descent including many from Portugal. During the late 19th century, men and women traveled from the Portuguese islands of Madeira and Azores to the Hawaiian Islands in search of a new life. This migration lasted from 1878 to 1913, bringing many of the Portuguese influences evident in Hawaii today. Some of these items have become iconic aspects of Hawaiian culture, whether it is in food, customs or music.

One of the most well known Portuguese additions to the Hawaiian way of life, is the ukulele. Most people associate the ukulele with Hawaii’s island-culture, without knowing the instrument’s true origin. According to one version of the history, the ukulele made its first appearance in Hawaii in 1879 when a new immigrant from Madeira, named Joao Fernandes, was so overjoyed at arriving in Hawaii that he began playing a braguinha (a precursor to the ukulele) as soon as he was off the boat. The onlookers were astounded by his joyful playing, and the way his fingers danced up and down the strings, that they referred to the instrument as the “jumping flea.” The word ukulele itself is actually derived from the Hawaiian words uku, meaning gift or reward, and lele, meaning to come.

The beautifully crafted instruments are in the guitar family, though they are usually strung with four nylon strings instead of customary six steel strings on a regular guitar. The instrument can be made from a variety of woods, including the native Hawaiian koa tree, mango, mahogany, cedar, redwood or spruce. There are four main kinds of ukuleles, ranging from smallest to largest: the soprano (the most common), concert (popular for live performances), tenor (used in acoustic or recording sessions) and the baritone (played where deeper tones are needed). Most ukuleles have 4 strings, though there can be as many as 10 or 12 on some variations of the instrument.

King David Kalakaua famously popularized the instrument in the late 19th century by learning to play it himself and by encouraging the playing of ukuleles during hula dances and royal ceremonies. Because of the instrument’s apparent popularity, three men from Madeira named Augusto Dias, Jose de Santos, and Manuel Nunes, opened up a ukulele shop in Honolulu. The beautiful ukuleles would sell for about $5 apiece; as Hawaii was ever a hub of foreign travel and trade, they soon began appearing for sale on mainland US.

Though the ukuleles have fluctuated in popularity over the years, they have steadily had a presence in jazz music, romantic songs and even film soundtracks. Ukulele performers from Hawaii have found a new and appreciative international audience. Hawaii-born Jake Shimabukuro is probably the most famous guitar virtuoso in the world today and has been featured in many worldwide concerts as well as on the national media. Though these instruments are now manufactured all over the globe, the origin and sound of ukuleles are still unequivocally associated with Hawaii.

Today, ukuleles can be heard highlighted in Hawaiian hula dances, played at Hawaiian weddings or simply strummed by a stranger at the beach. Every year in Oahu, these iconic instruments are celebrated for a day at the annual Ukulele Festival in Honolulu in July. The festival hosts hours of open-air ukulele concerts, authentic Hawaiian food booths, assorted ukulele displays, ukulele lessons and even free instrument giveaways. Tourists and Hawaii residents unite to celebrate a mutual love of music and Hawaiian culture.

One of the most notable moments of the events occurs when nearly 800 young students play in a stunning ukulele orchestra. Families planning a trip to Hawaii should consider going to Oahu in July during this festival, as this is an unforgettable way for children to expand their knowledge of these beautiful instruments. One of the most beautiful aspects of Hawaiian culture is the music as there is no sound more soothing that that of the gentle ocean waves mixed with the melodious strumming of a ukulele.


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