Tuesday, July 1, 2008
The History of the Ukulele
The story of the ukulele actually began in Portugal. In the summer of 1870, a boat arrived in Honolulu Harbor with 410 immigrants from the Portuguese island of Madeira. Upon arrival, one of the passengers, Joao Fernandez, began entertaining by standers by playing a 4-string Portuguese instrument called a braguinha. In short order, the islanders became enchanted with the little instrument and promptly renamed it---ukulele. Pronounced oo-koo-le-le (and still to this day, pronounced this way in Hawaii), the name was Hawaiian for “jumping flea,” which is exactly how the islander described the effect of a player’s finger “jumping around the fret board.
Manual Nunez, another Madeiran, played a major role in transforming the braguinha into the modern day ukulele. Some of his refinements included replacing the steel strings with gut strings and altering the tuning slightly to allow for easier chord formation. Along with some of the other great Hawaiian ukulele makers, Dias, and later, Santo, Kumalae and Kamaka, he discovered that the local koa tree produced a wood that was exceptionally light and resonant for uke manufacturing.
Hawaiian royalty also played a big part in the popularizing of the ukulele. King David Kalakaua, Queen Emma and the future Queen Liliuokalani (who later wrote the famous Hawaiian song “ Aloha Oe”) were all great ukulele admirers.
In 1915, Hawaii invested $100, 000 in their Pavilion at the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and thousands of Americans heard the ukulele for the first time. In 1916, the Victor Record Company sold more Hawaiian records than any other style of music. U.S. guitar makers, sensing a new market, jumped in with their own uke designs. Companies like Martin, Gibson and National Resonator are three companies whose early ukes have become quite collectible. The ‘20’s saw the emergence of two of the great uke players: both Roy Smeck and Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) were considered “pop stars” of their time. Because of their efforts, much of the sheet music in the “20’s and ‘30’s featured ukulele chord diagrams.
Thanks to Arthur Godfrey, more waves of ukulele popularity occurred in the ‘40s- and in the ‘50’s, as a result of the sale of millions of low-cost plastic ukuleles designed by Mario Maccaferri.
Now there are only a handful of ukulele manufacturerers (Kamak is one of the few remaining Hawaiian makers). However, like you, there are still many avid ukulele fans. The annual Ukulele Festival in Hawaii continues to introduce new crops of children and teens to the joys of the uke. Japan, Canada and England are big uke markets and in the mainland U.S., cities like Los Angeles can boast as many as three active ukulele clubs.