A Short History of the Ukulele

Quite a few misconceptions and myths have come out about the ukulele, so let’s set the record straight once and for all. No, it’s not just a small guitar for kids. And it’s not even a Hawaiian invention at all. Here are the real facts about the history of the ukulele that you should know:

  • In 1879, the ship Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii with immigrants from Madeira, Portugal. Most of these workers were set to work in the sugar plantations, as the local population wasn’t enough. This ship also brought 3 woodworkers (Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo) who celebrated their successful voyage and would later open their own wood shops.

 

  • They didn’t just make furniture, but they made musical instruments too. While they started making guitars of all sizes, they also made Portuguese stringed instruments like the machête. No one really knows which of the 3 made the first ukulele, which was a combination of the machete and the smaller 5-stringed rajão. However, Nunes ran newspaper ads proclaiming that he invented the ukulele.  The first ad for the ukulele appeared in about 1889.
  • Many of the immigrants enjoyed playing the instrument, and so did many of the local Hawaiians. However, its popularity was imminent when King David Kalakauna became a fan. He had it incorporated in classic Hawaiian music and dances, and he also held songwriting contests for the ukulele. The king’s sister who became queen after him continued on this patronage for the instrument.

  • Where did the ukulele get its name? There are 2 main contending origin stories. The first story is that the name means “jumping flea”, and it was how the people described how the musician’s fingers moved over the fretboard. The other story favored by the queen was that the name means “gift that came here”, as an acknowledgement that the instrument was brought by the Portuguese.
  • Hawaii became a famous tourist spot, and many vacationers were intrigued by the small stringed instrument. Traveling shows of Hawaiian performers also brought the ukulele to the US mainland, so by the 1920 it was very popular in the US.
  • In 1929, a Japanese man named Haida who was born in Hawaii brought the ukulele to Japan when he returned home. He formed a club with his brother, and the instrument became very popular due to the people’s fascination with Western music like jazz and Hawaiian music. It was banned during WW2, but it became popular again after the war. In 1959, Haida established the Nihon Ukulele Association and made Japan next only to Hawaii as the home of the ukulele fans.

  • Rock and roll made the ukulele unpopular, but it made a comeback in the alternative music scene of the 1990s. In 1993, Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole made it popular again by playing reggae music with the ukulele that were used in films, TV shows, and commercials over the turn of the century.
  • YouTube has firmly ensconced the ukulele in the consciousness of music fans today. Many ukulele renditions of famous songs have gone viral, such as the performances of Jake Shimabukuro and Sungha Jung.

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