The History Of The Ukulele
Nowadays, when we hear the word “Ukulele”, we immediately think of Hawaii, beautiful white sand beaches, surfboards and flower necklaces. However, the ukulele was born from another instrument very far away from Hawaii: It is called cavaquinho, and it is a four-string instrument, very popular in Portugal.
The ukulele, also known as uku, is a plucked string instrument. It generally has four strings, which can be double.
They are usually built in four sizes: soprano, concerto, tenor, and baritone. There are also some rare versions of this instrument: sopranino, banjolele, banjo uke, five strings versions, and electroacoustic.
In order to rediscover its birthplace, we must travel in time until late 1800’s, specifically to the Portuguese island of Madeira, from this place the British ship SS Ravenscrag sailed to Hawaii with 423 crew members on board. Most of them were going to work in the sugar cane fields.
The Ravenscrag arrived at the Honolulu port located in the O’ahu Island on August 23rd, 1879 after four months of the journey. There are 4 of those crew members which names I will recall: João Fernandes, Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes y Jose do Espirito Santo.
The Origin Of The “Ukulele”
History says that after arriving at Honolulu, João Fernandes took his cavaquinho (also known as the machete, braguinha) and played a song with it that captivated the natives. These were the ones who named it “Ukulele”, which literally means flying flea. Uku means flea in Hawaiian and “lele” means jumping, although other possible etymologies of this word are attributed to the Queen Lili’oukalani. According to these parallel theories, Ukulele means “the gift that came to us.” Regardless of the name origin, we can state that the Ukulele history begins then.
After the end of their 3-year contract in the sugar cane field, the four crew members I mentioned above established in Honolulu, where they worked as carpenters. They manufactured musical instruments, such as guitar, cavaquinho, and 5-string rajão (another instrument from Madeira). At some point, they created a hybrid with the cavaquinho’s shape and its four strings, but with a tuning similar to the one of the 5-string rajão: in this way, the Ukulele was born.
The exact date of manufacturing in unknown, however, some people believe that it was near 1886. It is also unknown who was the first of the four crew members to create the first Ukulele, but Manuel Nunes claimed to be the original creator of this phenomenal instrument and developed his tags.
The official presentation was in 1889 in the British Yacht Nyanza in the Honolulu port. Princess Victoria Kaʻiulani, the niece of King David Kalākaua, made the honors. She played the Ukulele for the first time while performing with two other women.
The fact that this instrument is related to royalty and was originally made of Hawaiian Koa wood made the Ukulele the undisputable symbol of Hawaii. It is also a symbol of respect towards nature and mother earth, which made this instrument very popular among the Kanaka ‘oiwi (the Hawaiian autochthonous people). As a matter of fact, they often reclaim it as a part of their cultural identity. It is important to highlight that King Kalākaua’s fervent passion for this instrument made him the leading promoter of the link between the Ukulele and the Hawaiian culture.
When does the Ukulele become so famous?
From Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards and Roy Smeck in the USA during the 1920’s and 1930’s, to the great George Formby in the United Kingdom and Lyle Ritz’s jazz in ha 1950’s, the Ukulele have had a good deal of fame throughout modern music history.
In the 60’s and 70’s a sort of Ukulele rebirth as the symbol of Hawaiian tradition took place thanks to artist such as Eddie Kamae (from the Sons of Hawaii band), Peter Moon, and Herb Otha.
After them, some other artist followed their direction, such as Israel IZ, Kamakawiwo´ole and some bands like the Ka´au Crater Boys and the Makaha Sons of Ni‘ihau.
Celebrities that play the Ukulele
Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, James Hill, Eddie Vedder, Paul McCartney Tiny Tim, Vic Chesnut, Neil Armstrong, Dick Dale, Jimi Hendrix, Artie Shaw, Annie B sweet, Neil Young, Christopher Drew, George Harrison, George Benson, Brian May, Marilyn Monroe, The Ditty Bops, Florence & the machine, Beirut, Zoé, Natalia la Fourcade, Hello Seahorse, Julieta Venegas, Syd Phi and many others use the Ukulele as a tool to delight, which keeps promoting the use of this instrument.
The most famous ukulele brands
There have been many Ukulele manufacturers through the las 200 years, and many of them have prevailed. There are many brands, and each one has its classic models, as well as more radical and psychedelic versions. Some of the best brands are KALA, MAKALA, Mahalo, Fender, Washburn, Regal, Harmony, Yamaha, Lanikai, Ohana, and Kamaka. The last three are the first official Hawaiian manufacturers and the only few that have been creating Ukuleles from the very beginning.