We recently wrote an article on the best uke strings, so check it out here. Ukuleles are popular all over the globe, but they initially come from Hawaii. The uke is very similar to a stringed instrument called machete that was bought on the islands by Portuguese immigrants.
Where did it all start?
The ukulele has a long history that dates back almost 200 years ago. It all started in the latter half of the 1800s, and the instrument was initially developed in the Madeira Islands, which were part of Portugal’s colonial empire. The initial name of the instrument was “machete”, although today, this word means something else, a long knife used especially in the jungle.
The machete de braga, as it was its full name, was a descendant of stringed instruments that were popular in Europe and the Middle East at that time. As such the instrument was closely related to the lute. It was a member of the guitar family and can be found in history under different names including braguinha, cavaco, and cavaquinho.
You may know that the ukulele comes from Hawaii, so how did it end up there? Well, the machete de braga was brought in Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants who wanted to start a life there by working in the sugar cane fields.
There are 3 people who are believed to have brought the instrument with them and who have later created them on the islands. Their names are Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose do Espirito Santo, and they got to Hawaii in 1879.
How did the uke get its name?
There is no clear history of how the ukulele changed its name from the machete to its current one, and there are many legends about this. The name itself means “jumping flea”, so this leads to more possible explanations.
Maybe the most prevalent story of the instrument’s name is related to one passenger aboard the Ravenscrag ship, the one that brought the immigrants on the islands. When the ship reached the port the passenger was so happy after many months at sea that he jumped off the ship and started playing folk songs on his machete.
The local people saw him jumping and playing the instrument and saw how his fast fingers also jumped on the strings, and that’s how the name was given to the instrument, the jumping flea.
But this is not the only viable story of how the instrument got its name. Another legend is that the ukulele was played by an Englishman named Edward Purvis. He was a real person that had an important role in Hawaii’s history – he was the Assistant Chamberlain of King David Kalakaua, who was actually the last king of Hawaii.
Purvis is thought to have had a great influence on the instrument, and that’s also because he was nicknamed ukulele due to how small he was and how energetic. It is said that he often played the instrument for the king and that’s how the ukulele got its name.
However, Queen Lili’uokalani, who was the last actual monarch of the islands explained a different meaning for the instrument. She said that the term is made of two parts. The first of them, “uku” means “gift”, and the second part “lele” translates to “to come”. So all in all the name of the instrument can be translated to “the gift that came here”.
As you can see, this has nothing to do with fleas, and it may well be the truth about the name of the instrument, taking into account the history of the ukulele and how it came from Portugal all the way to Hawaii.
What happened after its arrival?
At first, not many people knew about this new instrument, but the king, David Kalakaua really liked it, and that was what made the ukulele popular. At that time, the Hawaiian culture was seen as basic, uncivilized, and the king strived to prove those who believed that wrong. And he thought the ukulele could serve a good purpose to that.
He also thought that this will help people keep their culture and religion instead of converting to Christian values. That is why he often encouraged a beautiful mixture of modern art and traditional Hawaiian aspects of culture. He wanted to help people enjoy their culture again. Thus the ukulele got to be the prime Hawaiian instrument, it served in royal purposes and along with the hula it had a great role in traditional music.
It is thought that the 3 famous Portuguese immigrants that brought the ukulele with them initially worked on the sugar plantations found in Hawaii. After they finished doing that they returned to woodworking in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii. They were actually listed there as guitar makers, and under the instructions of the king, they created many ukuleles.
Manuel Nunes was believed to be the most successful of them, as he created these instruments even after the ukulele was introduced to the American mainland, and his sons continued his craft.
Reaching the mainland
Many Portuguese settlers traveled around the world and they had their machete or ukulele with them. However, the instrument was not known worldwide, and it only reached a mainstream audience in the USA in the early 1900s. The real breakthrough of the instrument in American media was at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.
At that exposition, there were a number of Hawaiian ukulele players who performed in different formulas and styles and they impressed the visitors. After that, many people started to buy the instrument and that’s how it got some popularity. It eventually led to mainland musicians picking it up as well, and they played traditional Hawaiian music.
The instrument also became popular in other music styles. Between 1915 and 1920 the ukulele became one of the most popular instruments and the music played on it was competing against popular mainland songs. That is why many American instrument manufacturers saw an opportunity and started producing the instrument.
There was a tension between the American producers and the Hawaiian ones but nothing really happened between them and they all kept producing more and more, as the people wanted more instruments. The sales of ukuleles increased year by year.
It was a good instrument for everybody because it could be produced in different degrees of quality. Some people wanted some simple instrument that they could play easily, and that’s why manufacturers started producing inexpensive models. The uke was considered a beginner’s instrument that could be found at an affordable price, it’s portable and easy to learn.
That is how the ukulele became one of the iconic instruments of the Jazz period. It wasn’t such a popular instrument afterward, but it got back again into mainstream music with the help of American servicemen who brought their ukes back home after serving in Hawaii in the second world war.
Along the years the ukulele became more of an instrument used for certain occasions and by certain artists, but not something that dominated the music industry. Although bands like The Beatles loved it, they rarely used it in songs.
Around the world
Some other countries have introduced the ukulele in their repertoires with great success. Japan is one of these countries, and the uke has been present there since the early 1900s, coming from the Hawaiian islands as well. Due to World War Two going on, the instrument was banned in that period, but after that, it became very popular there.
In Canada, the ukulele can be considered an important instrument, as the country teaches children how to play it in school. Nowadays, all over the world, the ukulele is a known instrument and it has its audiences. It’s one of the most versatile instruments and that’s why people like it, and with the help of the uke, many people are able to learn how to play some songs.
It’s also one of those instruments that bring people together and makes them happy. It’s easy to carry one with you and strum it along with some friends. That’s why many ukulele clubs, formations based on ukuleles and orchestras have formed around the world. When an artist playing the ukulele has a concert, he or she usually encourages the audience to bring theirs too.
There are now more types of ukuleles and each of them serves a specific role in music. Nonetheless, the ukulele is still associated with the Hawaiian culture, and it’s considered that some of the best ukes are still made there.