The Ukulele, pronounced as yoo-ke-lay-lee, is a four-stringed instrument from the lute family. Shortened as uke, it is often described or even thought of as a small guitar-like instrument because of its shape. Still, it is different from an acoustic guitar in many ways, the most obvious of which is that it has four strings, and they are tuned differently in G-C-E-A. It is actually the Hawaiian adaptation of the stringed instrument called machete, which came from Madeira, Portugal.
History and Origins of Ukulele
In the late 1800’s, thousands of workers from Portugal came to Hawaii to work at the sugar plantations. Among those who arrived in August 1879 aboard the SS Ravenscrag, were three Madeiran men, namely Jose do Espirito Santo, Manuel Nunes, and Augusto Dias, to work as plantation workers. It was reported on the local paper that upon arrival, street concerts in which the men played their instruments were held nightly much to the delight of the people in the area.
One of the things that these Portugese immigrants brought with them was the machete as a way to pass the time or as a form of entertainment. It did not take long before the Hawaiians adopted it into their culture as well, and the Ukulele was born. Three men were credited as the first ukulele luthiers. The popularity of the instrument created an opportunity for the Madeiran men, who were cabinet makers by trade, to open a ukulele workshop after their contracts were over. Nunes was said to be the first one who set up shop in Honolulu sometime in 1880, and then the two followed.
The last king of Hawaii, King Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891, was not immune to the charm of the Ukulele and the music it produced. He promoted it and even encouraged his people to learn how to play one. It later became the national instrument of Hawaii.
Stages of Development across Different Countries
The playing of Ukulele reached a wider audience in America when a guitar and ukulele ensemble performed at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, held in San Francisco. It started a craze in which the Tin Pan Alley songwriters’ compositions were mostly Hawaiian-themed, and the Ukulele was not exclusively used for traditional Hawaiian music but also in other genres; simply put, it became part of mainstream music. Everyone could not get enough of the ukulele music, and American instrument manufacturers started making ukuleles due to high demand. Its popularity continued well into the 1960’s.
The uke’s popularity declined after that, but it was later revived in the 1990’s with the advent of the internet and video streaming sites that brought the sounds of Ukulele to modern audiences. The Hawaiian musician, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, released a medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What A Wonderful World” with the Ukulele as the accompaniment in 1993, and it became very popular. Jake Shimabukuro’s video of him playing the song’s Ukulele, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” in 2006 went viral on YouTube. His rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” also gained millions of views.
A Hawaiian-born ukulele player, Yukihiko Haida, went to Japan upon his father’s death to put his ashes in the family grave. He was unable to return to Honolulu after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Kanto in 1923. He and Katsuhiko Haida, his younger brother, formed a Hawaiian music band, Moana Glee Club, in 1928, which made the Ukulele quite popular in Japan. In 1959, they formed the Nihon Ukulele Association.
George Formby, the highest-paid entertainer in the UK during his time, was a known ukulele and banjolele player. He sang comical songs while playing the Ukulele on stage and screen. He went on tour in the early and mid-40’s entertaining troops. Upon his death in 1961, the George Formby Society was formed. The Beatles’ George Harrison, who debuted in 1964, was an advocate of the Ukulele. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain was formed in 1985, with members singing and playing ukuleles.
To promote music literacy, Canadian educator and musician, J. Chalmers Doane, incorporated the use of Ukulele as a practical way of teaching music and instruments in the Canadian school system from 1967 to 1984. Around 50,000 students learned to play the instrument during that time. The British Columbia schools used the Doane’s music program, which gave birth to the Langley Ukulele Ensemble in the 1970’s.
When Different Types and Sizes of Ukelele Invented?
Ukuleles come in a variety of sizes and the sounds produced. The most common are the soprano which is considered the standard Ukulele measuring 21 inches and tuned in keys of G-C-E-A; the concert or alto at 23 inches is slightly bigger and louder, and was created in the 1920’s; the tenor at 26 inches, which has a deeper bass tone, was developed next; and the baritone (29 inches) tuned in the keys of D-G-B-E, which is different from the first three, was developed in the 1940’s. As the length of the instrument increase, the frets and scale length or string length would increase as well, which means the range and alternative tunings for each one would be different.
The less common types of Ukulele are the bass created in 2010 and contrabass in 2014; both are bigger and tuned in E-A-D-G. The smallest uke is called the pocket or sopranino at 16 inches. There is also the banjolele, which is a combination of the banjo’s tone and construction and the Ukulele’s playing style and tuning; it was built in 1917.
How the Ukulele Got Its Name?
No one really knows for sure how it got its name, but there are myths or stories about it. The word “ukulele” is literally translated as “jumping flea” with “uku” meaning flea and “lele” meaning jumping. Some said that when playing the uke, the rapid movement of the fingers on the fretboard looks like fleas jumping.
There were stories of a musician aboard the SS Ravenscrag for more than 120 days who did a jumpy dance when he arrived in Hawaii. The people were reminded of jumping fleas when they saw him while others said that he jumped off the ship when he arrived and started playing the machete, and the people who saw how fast his fingers moved said that it looked like fleas jumping across the fingerboard.
Another theory is that Queen Lili’uokalani interpreted the name differently to mean “the gift that came here” or “the gift from afar” referring to the fact that the instrument was brought by Portuguese immigrants to the Hawaiian shores. There were those who said that Edward Purvis, the vice-chamberlain during King Kalakaua’s reign, was given the nickname “ukulele” because he was an expert at playing machete and because he, of small stature, has an energetic personality. Some believed he was the inspiration behind the name of the instrument.