The ukulele is one of music’s most wonderful and simplest instruments to play. Its innate modesty as an instrument is what attracts many musicians to it. It origins can be traced back to the 19th century as a Hawaiian version of the Portuguese machete, a metal four string instrument from the guitar family.
Although the ukulele is fondly associated with Hawaiian music, its “redesign” into the ukulele from a Portuguese machete is credited to Porteguese immigrants who arrived from the island of Madeira in 1879. These immigrants came to work the cane fields of Hawaii. Upon there safe arrival after 123 days at sea on the SS Ravenscrag, the Portuguese immigrants decided to celebrate in style. They charmed and entertained their hosts with nightly concerts playing the wonderful and strange new sounds of their four stringed machete.
The machete very quickly became a sensational hit among the local population. Its popularity and eventual manufacture as an instrument is credited to three Portuguese cabinetmakers who arrived on the Ravenscrag among those who came to work the cane fields.
By 1886, the first instrument shops were opened, the machete was renamed the Ukulele, roughly translating as “jumping fleas’ and the rest is history. Well almost. According to the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, she states that the name means “the gift that came here” from the Hawaiian uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).
The acceptance of the ukulele only grew stronger when Hawaii’s King David Kalakaua (1836-1891) fell in love with it as an instrument. He was even taught how to build a ukulele by Augusto Dias, one of the Portuguese cabinetmakers.
Now truly adopted by the people of Hawaii, the machete was cleverly redesigned into the simpler ukulele (we know today). It was tuned slightly different and was made from local koa wood.
Politically, the ukulele in its early days became a symbol of the struggle of Hawaiian sovereignty and independence. During the era of political turmoil in Hawaii at the end of the 19th century and its eventual abolishment in 1893, the new government used the ukulele as a tool to “sell” and attract tourists to the Islands. Beautiful girls wearing long skirts of grass, dancing and playing the ukulele along a golden sandy beach became todays cliché images of Hawaii.
The popularity of the Ukulele would eventually spread to mainland United States in around 1915 and the rest of the world thereafter.
Below is a clip of one of my favourite artists, Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and his song “Sleeping by Myself”. In 2011, he recorded an album of Ukulele songs and I like this clip, in particular, for two reasons. Firstly, you get to hear a beautiful song, but secondly, it is a clip showing you how a ukulele is made. Vedders love for the ukelele was born when his mother brought him a beat up ukelele when he was 10 years old. Vedder says,
“To keep the strings taut, I had to wrap the headstock in masking tape. My first instrument, in a way, was one of those little green memo pad notebooks when I was really young. I’d write songs, putting arrows over the notes so I’d know which note was higher than the other. The ukulele thing probably happened when I was ten. My mom would go to garage sales or yard sales, clean up all the toys, and put them under the tree. I’d get a little racetrack, and a key piece of track was missing. I think it was probably a yard sale, and they just gave the ukulele to us as an act of pity.”
Photo credit: The header image is of Hawaiian born Israel Kamakawiwo’ole. He was one most talented ukulele players and performers to have graced this earth. His medley of “Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful world” is his most recognisable song outside of Hawaii.