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Ukulele History: Where It All Began

The uncovered mystery

by Jennifer VanBenschoten

The ukulele history is about to tell. On August 23, 1879, a group of Portuguese immigrants stepped off a boat that had sailed from the island of Madeira and finished its journey in Hawaii. Among the 419 men, women, and children who were ready to start new lives working in the sugar plantations were a few instrument makers who had carried with them some of the traditional instruments from their homes. Newspapers reported at the time reported that the new arrivals were giving delightful street concerts every night using some of these instruments. 

Soon after their arrival, the instrument we all love and know as the modern ukulele was born, and the world of music has never been the same! Let’s take a little journey back in time and learn some ukulele history, going back to where it all began in 1879.

Ukulele History, the beginning

The Machete: Grandfather of the Modern Ukulele? 

One of the instruments that the immigrants brought with them to Hawaii was the machete, a little stringed instrument from the island of Madeira. Traditionally, the machete looks like an oval that’s been pinched in the middle giving it “bulges” at the top and bottom. It was originally strung with strings made from animal guts, but modern versions of this instrument use metal or steel strings. These strings were traditionally tuned to DGBD or DGBE, in the same way, that a guitar or our modern baritone ukuleles are tuned. 

The Machete instrument.- Image: Artur Pestana Andrade Virtual Museum.

A couple of weeks after the immigrants arrived in Hawaii, three cabinet makers from Madeira – Manuel Nunes, Jose de Espirito Santo, and Augusto Dias – are credited with creating the first instrument we know as the ukulele. It had the body shape of the traditional machete, used four strings, and was tuned similarly to the rajao, a Portuguese 5-stringed instrument similar to the lute and the machete. The rajao used a re-entrant tuning, and with one of the strings dropped, it was adapted to the GCEA we all know today.

How Did the Ukulele Became Associated with Hawaiian Culture?

Once these sweet little instruments were introduced by the trio of cabinet makers from Madeira, they caught the attention of King Kalākaua. The King was a patron of the arts, sometimes called The Merry Monarch, and loved to sing. He was instantly enamored of the ukulele and found ways to include ukulele performances at state functions, dinners, and events. 

The name “ukulele” translates to “jumping flea”, and it is believed that it was a reference to one of King Kalākaua’s ministers, a man named Edward William Purvis, whose small stature and jumpy mannerisms amused the King. 

Even during times of political strife and social unrest, Hawaiians turned to their ukuleles for solace and strength. When the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by capitalists from the U.S. in 1893 and the Queen imprisoned in her own palace, Hawaiians wrote songs of protest and solidarity.

Soon this instrument could be found in all corners of Hawaii, but it would be decades before the ukulele found its way to the rest of the world.

Read more: Ukulele and Baritone Tuning 

Ukulele Around the World

In 1915, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (a type of world’s fair) featured ukulele performances at their Hawaiian pavilion. Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville performers fell in love with the little four-stringed instrument and soon, ukulele music could be found in all sorts of popular music throughout the United States. Its small size, playability, and unique sound made it an iconic instrument of the jazz age in the U.S., as both professional and amateur performers fell in love with the ukulele. It was affordable during a time of economic hardship in the U.S. and gave people a way to play music and forget their troubles, even if for a little while.

The ukulele arrived in Japan in the late 1920s and was an instant hit among music enthusiasts and performers there as well. During World War II when Western music was banned in Japan, the ukulele obviously fell out of favor, but in the mid-1950s, it experienced a resurgence in popularity.

1915 SOPRANO UKULELE.- Image: Live Guitars Co.

Great Britain experienced a ukulele buzz around the same time that it regained popularity in Japan, sometime in the mid to late 1950s. It gained so much attention that in 1961, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was founded, and still continues to delight and amaze with performances around Europe and the U.S. to this day.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the 1950s gave the ukulele a new life. Performances by artists like Tiny Tim and Arthur Godfrey on television inspired people to pick up a ukulele and make music. It is estimated that approximately 1.7 million people in the U.S. purchased a ukulele in the 1950s, and even recording artists like Elvis Presley and The Beatles played this versatile little instrument.

Ukulele Today and Tomorrow

The ukulele fell out of favor again, or maybe it just needed a rest. At any rate, the ukulele took a breather from mainstream popular music in the 70s and 80s, showing up now and then as a fun, quirky addition to obscure jazz recordings and throwbacks to the 1920s. 

In the 90s, the ukulele began showing up again in mainstream music and in schools, thanks to the Ukulele In the Classroom program created in the 1960s by Canadian educator J. Chalmers Doane. 

Today, artists like Vance Joy, Jason Mraz, and Eddie Vedder are re-introducing the ukulele in mainstream music, and ukuleles have once again exploded in popularity. Ukuleles can be found in almost every good music shop alongside guitars and mandolins. Ukulele makers like Kanile’a and Kamaka in Hawaii are producing more gorgeous, high-end instruments than ever. And ukulele festivals and conferences can be found across the country in almost every state. 

The ukulele as it was first imagined has also changed. Ukuleles now come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. Ukulele sizes range from the soprano (or even smaller sopranino and sopranissimo), to a concert, to a tenor, to the largest baritone ukulele. You can find waterproof ukuleles made of plastic that can be taken out on a paddleboard or surfboard or in a pool (or shower, if you roll that way), ukuleles made out of exotic hardwoods, bamboo, or good old mahogany. 

Ukulele shapes have changed, too, and now you can find cutaway ukuleles and even solid-body steel-string electric ukuleles that let you shred like Van Halen.

And if you love the ukulele but crave more than four strings, you can also find 5-string, 6-string, and 8-string ukuleles. Just like anything else, the ukulele has evolved to adapt to the needs and desires of modern musicians in a beautiful way!

Who knows where the ukulele will take you? Be a part of the history and the future of this amazing little instrument and check out all the ways you can learn how to play the ukulele on ULTP.

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Lila July 31, 2022 - 4:03 am

Nice article. You may want to edit the year of the founding or the UOOGB (it wasn’t 1961) according to their website.

Julia Metzmacher July 31, 2022 - 7:58 am

Thanks Jennifer, for the interesting and detailed research on ukulele history! It’s clearly a very powerful little instrument, I fell in love with it too!


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