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The History of the Ukulele

The Ukulele is actually the descendant of a four-stringed musical instrument known as the machête or, less accurately, the braguinha from the Portuguese island of Madeira. The collision of cultures that created the ukulele (or uke) can be traced to the very specific date of August 23, 1879. This was the day that the Ravenscrag, a British Ship filled with 423 men, women and children from Madiera, arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii. After a difficult four month voyage, the weary travelers were understandably thrilled to have finally reached their destination. According to the legend, upon arriving in Honolulu Harbor, a musician-passenger by the name of João Fernandes hopped onto the wharf and then began singing Portuguese folk songs of thanksgiving for their safe arrival. Although he was playing chiefly for the benefit of his fellow passengers, the assembled Hawaiians couldn’t help but be moved by his performance. They also couldn’t help but notice the curious instrument on which he was accompanying himself – a machête.

As fate would have it, three of the men on board the Ravenscrag, Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose De Espirito Santo were talented craftsmen. All three were cabinet makers and Santos and Dias were both talented musicians. These three men would soon play a role, in the development and popularization of the modern-day ukulele.

THE JUMPING FLEA

There are many theories about how the ukulele got its name. The two most-circulated stories include one about an English army officer, Edward Purvis, who arrived in Hawaii in 1879. Purvis was a talented musician who became quite adept at playing the machête, and after being appointed Assistant Chamberlain to the court of King David Kalakaua, often entertained the court with his expert playing. Because he was small and sprightly (as opposed to the markedly larger frames of the Hawaiians), he was nicknamed “Ukulele”, which in Hawaiian means “jumping flea” (also translated as “bouncing Flea” or “leaping flea”). One theory suggests the Purvis’ nickname simply spread to the instrument he loved to play.

 



A more literal theory likens the fingers of an accomplished player flying nimbly up and down the fretboard of the machête to the movement of “jumping fleas”. Queen Lili’uokalani didn’t care for this interpretation. She preferred a more poetic translation of the Hawaiian word uku as “the gift” and lele “to come”, referring to the way in which this now-cherished instrument had come from Portugal to Hawaii (obviously the Hawaiian word “uku” has multiple meanings}. While there are many possible explanations as to the genesis of the ukulele’s name, it is important to note that there is only one correct pronunciation in Hawaii: “oo-koo-le-le” which is in marked contrast to the way the “yoo-koo-le-le” is commonly pronounced on the mainland.

 

THE UKULELE COMES OF AGE

Although responding to a call for workers in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, Augusto Dias expected to find employment in the woodworking industry. Like Fernandes, Dias was also a fine musician and reportedly passed the time on the Ravenscrag playing guitar and singing. When Dias arrived in Honolulu in August of 1879, he was crushed to learn that most of the men from the ship were engaged as laborers in the fields. At ten dollars per month, Dias worked hard enough to pay off the year long contract three months early.

With local interest growing in the machete, Dias, Nunes, and Santo eventually opened their own instrument shops in Honolulu. Dias is listed in the 1884 City Directory and both he and Nunes advertised themselves as “machete” makers in an 1885 edition of the Portuguese-language newspaper O Luso Hawaiiano. In 1886 there is an article in the same paper about Santo’s shop.

Dias the musician developed a long-standing relationship with King Kalakaua. Engaged regularly to perform at social functions at Ionani Palace, Dias would demonstrate his unique Spanish style of picking the melody, as opposed to using the instrument to just strum the chords. The King also held weekly poker parties where such notables as Robert Louis Stevenson would play his flageolet (a kind of recorder) and Dias would play the uke…

It was around 1915 that the 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 rise. The craze even swept across the ocean to the UK.

A great demand for ukuleles meant a great 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. New competitors entered the field sometimes bringing unique design differences, tonal qualities and innovations. 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. By the 1920s, mainland manufacturers such as Gibson, Harmony, Regal, National, Dobro and Martin 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.

 



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, Eddie Karnae kept playing fabulous music with the uke, and Tiny Tim helped create enormous visibility for the instrument.

Today we see a resurgence in popularity of Hawaiian Music and the wonderful ukulele, and LANIKAI has been at the forefront of this resurgence. Hawaii is still home to several luthiers who have turned their talented hands and eyes to the ukulele, and alongside LANIKAI and other brands are helping to expand the popularity of this amazing little instrument.

 



"My Dog Has Fleas" is being heard by yet another generation throughout the world. There are numerous Ukulele festivals throughout the world, including dozens on the mainland and plenty all around Hawaii, not to mention numerous inline communities centered on the ukulele.

 

(Extracted from “The Ukulele – A Visual History” by Jim Beloff, Backstreet Books. Published by Mel Bay. ©1997-2003 United Entertainment Media - Used by permission).

 
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