Hawaiian Ukulele History

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The ukulele sometimes abbreviated to uke, is a chordophone classified as a plucked lute; it is a subset of the guitar family of instruments, generally with four nylon or gut strings or four courses of strings. The ukuleleoriginated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of the cavaquinho or braguinha and the rajão, small guitar-like instruments taken to Hawaii?i by Portuguese immigrants. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally. Elvis Presley, Paul McCarthy, Jimi Hendrex owned a Ukulele and played. It is just like a mini guitar, tuned a little higher, more portable, and is very popular for creating Hawaiian theme songs.

Ukuleles are commonly associated with music from Hawai‘i where the name roughly translates as “jumping flea”, perhaps due to the action of one’s fingers playing the ukulele resembling a “jumping flea”. According to Queen Lili’uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on two small guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin, the cavaquinho and the rajão, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde. Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the firstukulele makers.

paniolo_smallHawaiians were not only impressed with the beautiful sounds these instruments could make, but also with the speed these musicians’ fingers flew on the fingerboard. It is said, they in turn began calling this instrument the Ukulele, which roughly translates as “Jumping Fleas”. No matter what the real story behind the uke is, it became Hawaii’s most popular musical instrument and much is attributed to the above mentioned Portuguese master craftsmen. The ukulele received royal acclaim with nobles such as King Kalakaua, Queen Emma and Queen Lili’uokalani playing this wonderful instrument. Which in turn may have made it more accepted by the people of Hawaii. All who learned the art of the ukulele loved it, from fisherman and taro farmers to Kings and Queens.

It was around 1915 that the Hawaiian ukulele‘s popularity migrated to the mainland. A Hawaiian music craze had hit starting in San Francisco and made its way across the country causing ukulele sales to raise. The craze even swept across the ocean to the UK.

ukulele_history_smallThe great demand for ukuleles in turn lead to a demand for uke manufacturing. Of the three original Portuguese ukulele makers, only Manuel Nunes remained and by 1910, orders were so numerous that he could not keep up with the demand. A young Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka began his apprenticeship under Manuel Nunes (more on Kamaka Ukuleles). New competitors entered the field sometimes bringing unique design differences, tonal qualities and innovations. One of the competitors, Kumalae, had a new factory that could turn out around 300 instruments a month. Despite all the competition, there seemed to be plenty of business to go around as orders flooded in from all over.

Competition took a new turn as mainland guitar manufacturers entered the ukulele market around 1915. Hawaiian reaction was dismay and even anger. Mainland companies were stamping their ukuleles with the legend marker reading “Made in Hawaii”. Hawaiians fought back by creating a distinctive trademark, which they had protected by legislation. Hawaii uke makers received authority to place “Made in Hawaii, U.S.A.” and made it a misdemeanor to use the new legend marker on any ukuleles not made in the Hawaiian Islands.

In the 20s, mainland manufacturers such as Gibson, Harmony, Regal, National, Dobro and Martin (one of the most popular and successful maker… see our Martin SO ukulele), were mass-producing ukuleles by the thousands. Martin produced their first uke in 1916 based on the Nunes design. Many Hawaiians prize their Martin ukes, and have been heard to speak of its special tonal qualities to this day. At Bounty Music, we have been lucky enough to see a few of these beautiful old ukuleles.

In the 40s and 50s, the British music hall great George Formby and the American Arthur Godfrey kept the little instrument in the mainstream. Great players like Roy Smeck and Eddie Karnae kept playing fabulous music with the uke. But even with the arrival of Tiny Tim in the late 60s the popularity of the uke seemed to recede into people’s closets and by the early 70s, Kamaka was the world’s only manufacturer of ukuleles. Elvis Presley, Paul McCarthy, Jimi Hendrex owned a Ukulele and played. It is just like a mini guitar, tuned a little higher, more portable, and is very popular for creating Hawaiian theme songs.

How to Play the Ukulele Video



Today we are seeing resurgence in popularity of Hawaiian Music and the wonderful ukulele. Hawaii is home to several luthiers who have turned their talented hands and eyes to the ukulele. Maui Music is an excellent example with its distinctive thin body with amazing tone. The Ukulele – it’s light, very portable and brings a smile to just about every person that hears its beautiful melodies.

Originally published on www.kapotrading.com. To read the full article, please click here. Ukulele Beats is an up and coming ukulele cover band in San Diego, California with a unique vibe and twist. For bookings, ukulele images, music and videos, please visit our website at www.ukulelebeats.com.

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