The History of the Ukulele

 
When you think of Hawaii you often think of lava filled volcanoes, leis, and hula girls dancing amidst tourists on the beach.  But you can’t forget one of Hawaii’s most famous possessions that has become synonymous with laughter, fun, and enjoyment – the Ukulele.  There are many various accounts as to how the ukulele came to be, but most agree that it arrived in Hawaii in the latter part of the 19th century and from there took on a life of its own.

 

One of the most popular myths on how the ukulele came to be was a romantic tale of immigrants and joyous celebration.  It was 1879 when the Portuguese boat Ravenscrag arrived in port in Honolulu carrying some 400 Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira.  Taking over 4 months to reach Hawaii, they had a decidedly hard journey but were excited about the prospect of working in the sugar cane fields. They jumped off the boat with excitement and started to play the locals a celebration song on their interesting musical instrument that they had crafted themselves.  The Hawaiians that were standing on the wharf were incredibly impressed by the speed in which the immigrants played this instrument and nicknamed the instrument the ukulele which translated means the “jumping flea.”   

 

The other popular tale was that of Manuel Nunes, a master craftsman and instrument maker that had come to the Hawaiian Islands in order to make money in the sugar cane fields.  He moved in with Joao Fernandes and Augustine Dias, two of his friends from Portugal.  Together they worked and in their spare time they invented and developed the ukulele which was an instrument based on a design of instruments from their native home.  For the most part, most people believe that this is how the ukulele came to be, but either story shows you how important the ukulele became to the Hawaiian people. 

 

Within just a few years the ukulele became hugely popular with the locals as Joao Fernandes would play for hours for locals on the street and in the sugar cane fields.  The Hawaiians loved what they heard and started to ask to learn how to play for themselves.  Since it was an easy instrument to learn, a lot of people picked it up quickly and the love the ukulele spread like wildfire.  The orders were being placed, and Manual Nunes had left the sugar cane field in order to help make ukuleles for all the locals. By 1910 he could no longer keep up with the orders and hired an apprentice by the name of Samuel Kamaka who learned the craft first hand.  Then manufacturers started to get into the picture as well, specifically one by the name of Kumalae that turned out as many as 300 instruments a month. 

 

It took a little while, but in 1915 the popularity of the ukulele moved to the mainland where the people in San Francisco found out about it and incorporated it into their Hawaiian music craze that had been started.  It was there that guitar manufacturers entered the ukulele market which completely dismayed the Hawaiian locals who then created a distinctive trademark so that no one else could claim that their ukuleles were made in Hawaii if they weren’t. 

 

By the 1920’s mainland manufacturers were mass producing the ukulele with as many as 10,000 coming out in a month, and they were selling out just as quickly.  People started to order them from the UK and before you knew it, the ukulele was just about everywhere.  The ukulele continued to be popular well into the 1940’s and 1950’s with the music of British music great George Formby and the American musician Arthur Godfrey.  Then of course you had the incomparable Tiny Tim in the 1960’s with his trademark song “Tiny Bubbles.” However, even with all of the mainstream musicians playing this portable and intriguing instrument by the early 1970’s the only company left to make the ukuleles was Kamaka. 

 

Thankfully today we are seeing a resurgence in the popularity of the ukulele although it has never lost its popularity in Hawaii.  The home of the Ukulele Festival as well as Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele school still brings in hundreds of students and thousands of fans.  With some of the world’s finest ukulele players still situated in Hawaii, this fun instrument still draws in a massive amount of interest and will continue to do so for hundreds of years to come.

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