The ukulele is one of the most wonderful and simple musical instruments. His innate modesty as an instrument attracts many musicians to him. Its origin can be traced back to 19th century as the Hawaiian version of the Portuguese machete, a four-stringed metal instrument from the guitar family.
While the ukulele is fondly associated with Hawaiian music, its “transformation” into a Portuguese machete ukulele is attributed to Portuguese immigrants who arrived from Madeira in 1879. These immigrants came to work in the cane fields of Hawaii. After safely arriving there after 123 days on the Ravenscrag, the Portuguese immigrants decided to celebrate in a big way. They enchanted and entertained their hosts with nightly concerts, playing wonderful and strange new sounds from their four-stringed machete.
The machete quickly became a sensational hit among the local population. Its popularity and eventual production as an instrument is attributed to three Portuguese cabinetmakers who came to Ravenskrag among those who came to work in the cane fields.
By 1886, the first tool shops were open, the machete was renamed the ukulele, which roughly translates to “leaping fleas”, and the rest is history. Almost. According to the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, she states that the name means “gift that came here” from the Hawaiian uku (gift or reward) and lele (come).
The adoption of the ukulele only increased when King David Kalakaua of Hawaii (1836-1891) fell in love with it as an instrument. He even learned how to make a ukulele from Augusto Diaz, one of the Portuguese cabinetmakers.
Now the machete, really accepted by the people of Hawaii, has been artfully redesigned into the simpler ukulele (we know it today). It was set up a little differently and was made from local koa wood.
Politically, the ukulele in its early days became a symbol of the struggle for Hawaiian sovereignty and independence. During the era of political upheaval in Hawaii at the end of the XIX century.th century and its final abolition in 1893, the new government used the ukulele as a tool to “sell” and attract tourists to the islands. Beautiful girls in long grass skirts dancing and playing the ukulele on a golden sandy beach have become a Hawaiian cliché today.
The ukulele’s popularity eventually spread to the United States mainland around 1915 and then to the rest of the world.
Below is a clip of one of my favorite 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 video for two reasons in particular. Firstly, you will hear a beautiful song, and secondly, this is a clip showing how the ukulele is made. Vedder’s love for the ukulele was born when his mother brought him a battered ukulele when he was 10 years old. Vedder says
“To keep the strings taut, I had to wrap masking tape around the headstock. In a way, my first tool was one of those little green notepads when I was little. I wrote songs by placing arrows over notes so I knew which note was higher than the other. The ukulele must have happened when I was ten. My mom used to go to garage or yard sales, clean up all the toys and put them under the tree. I had a small race track, and there was no key section of the track. I think it was a yard sale and they just gave us a pity ukulele.”
Note: This featured article was originally published in 2013 but has been moved to the front pages to further highlight my original content.