When most people think of the Ukulele they think of Hawaii. That isn’t far from the truth, but the history of the ukulele isn’t quite that simple. Even more interesting is what has happened to the instrument since it reached the mainland of the United States, and how it has effected music since.
While early ukuleles only date back to around 1880, we still have plenty of history to cover and look into!
The Early History of the Ukulele
The origin of the Ukulele is highly attributed to Hawaii though it was first developed and used in the Madeira Island of Portugal where it was called a Machete. Once the machete was adopted in Hawaii it was redesigned to make it easier to learn and play.
Hawiians then started making the instrument out of a native wood, Koa, and adjusted the tuning, finishing the transformation from a machete to the ukulele we know today.
The Ukulele is still highly linked with music from Hawaii where the name translates as ‘jumping flea,’ Possibly because of the movement of a player’s fingers.
The earliest Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields When they arrived safely the would celebrate with Portuguese folk songs played on the four-string machete.
In August 1879, less than two weeks following their arrival, the Hawaiian Gazette reported of a band of Portuguese musicians who had been delighting people with night street concert using a strange instrument that looked like a cross between a guitar and a banjo.
After the Gazette report, The newly minted Ukulele rose to popularity among the native population and eventually became Hawaii’s national instrument. Two of the immigrants by the names of Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo helped the growing interest by opening their own instrument shop in Honolulu, the first of its kind.
The royal family at that time, particularly King David Kalakaua (1836-1891), an accomplished musician and composer also loved the instrument and started to learn how to play it while promoting its existence. Dias developed a long-standing relationship with the King Kalakaua, becoming a regular performer at the Iolani Palace.
As tourism to the Hawaiian Islands picked up in the early 1900s. Not only were visitors from the mainland enchanted with the music and culture of the island, but Hawaiian musicians started crossing the pacific and playing in San Francisco and along the west coast.
During the 1915 celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, a Hawaiian Pavilion exhibited hula dancers and musicians which quickly turned into one of the more popular exhibits.
The Modern Ukulele
Ukulele became a symbol of love of the land and support for Hawaiians sovereignty during an era of great political turmoil with the monarchy trying to maintain the country’s independence.
As Hawaii became more popular and started to see visitors and immigrants the instrument slowly spread to other countries.
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In Japan, Yukihiko Haida introduced the instrument following his return from the island in 1929. Haida and his brother Katsuhiko enjoyed rapid success in Western music while popularizing the ukulele, particularly with Hawaiian and jazz style music. In Japan today, Ukulele is considered a second home for Hawaiian musician and Ukulele virtuosos.
Demand for Ukulele in the UK rose in the 20th century as well. Enthusiasts noted that its portability and simplicity to play were the main contributing factors to its rise in popularity. Comedian George Formby and Tessie O’Shea are some of most famous Ukulele players in the region.
In The Untied States, the popularity of Ukulele boomed between 1915 and 1920, The Hawaiian islands became a mainstream topic for musicians and writers of the day, and the mainland became aware of the uke.
Instrument manufacturers saw the growth as a perfect opportunity to make and sell scores of Ukuleles in the United States, leading to Hawaiian instrument makers to file a patent on the uke and a variety of sizes were developed.
During the Great Depression, the ukulele took a step back in popularity, probably due to the harsh realities of the time. This isn’t the greatest period in the history of the ukulele, as the times definitely dampened the instrument’s popularity.
It wouldn’t be long until the ukulele came back, though, making a strong resurgence after World War II all the way through the 60’s. Author Godfrey and Tiny Tim both played the instrument on TV and on stage, exposing the uke to the masses and building a strong association with it.
Also during the late 1940s to late 1960, plastic manufacturer Mario Maccaferri produced 9 million inexpensive ukuleles to fuel its growth.
Though plastic was used because of its relatively cheap value, wood was and is still the most preferred material type when creating Ukulele. The following are some of the wood materials commonly used in the manufacture
With popular music going “electric” in the 70’s and 80’s the ukulele once again took a back seat. It wasn’t until the 90’s when musicians like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Jake Shimabukuro re-popularized the instrument with huge Billboard hits.
In the 20th century and early in the 21st century plenty of famous ukulele players have made their name with this fun little instrument.
Today you can find the ukulele everywhere as it regularly makes appearances on TV, radio, movies, and especially YouTube and there are great websites like Ukuguides dedicated to the instrument.
The Final Note
The history of the ukulele is quite a bit shorter than many of the instruments we talk about, not even spreading over 150 years yet while the guitar and some other instruments date back closer to 400 years.
Even knowing that, we love talking about how the ukulele made it to the mainland and how it has influenced so many popular songs, especially in recent times as the world needs a little joy.