Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Ukulele


I have been learning to play the ukulele, and have been curious how the instrument came about. After hearing the story from a tour guide in Hawaii last week, I decided to research it a bit more and let you know what I found out.

First off, you all know that ukuleles look like little 4-string guitars, and are associated with Hawaiian music and Tiny TIm. But we need to go to Portugal for the beginning of this story.

The cavaquinho is a small 4-string guitar that is popular in Portugal. The exact origins are not known, but it was probably introduced by the ancient Greeks, or possibly the Spaniards. Anyway, Portuguese emigrants travelled with these instruments (they are easy to pack, after all), and one of the places they stopped was Hawaii in the late 1800s.

In the summer of 1879 the British ship Ravenscrag stopped in Honolulu and the Hawaiians saw the cavaquinho for the first time. The people were tickled by the little guitar and thought the musician’s fingers were jumping around on the strings like fleas. And that is where the name came from: in Hawaiian, “uku” means flea, and “lele” means to jump. Believe it or don’t. A more highbrow explanation for the name comes from Queen Lili'uokalani who said that ukulele means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).

I am going with the flea explanation.

Three Portuguese cabinet makers from the Ravenscrag starting build the little guitars for Hawaiians, and that started the ball rolling. Hawaiian players adapted the cavaquinho and changed the tuning from fairly normal intervals to the distinctive tuning of G-C-E-A, with the G and octave higher than normal.

In the late 1800s, King David Kalakaua cemented the popularity of the instrument in Hawaiian music by promoting its use by having ukulele music performed at royal events. A true patron of the arts.

The ukulele came to the knowledge of Americans due to the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition. The expo had a Hawaiian Pavilion where George Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet performed songs that were very popular with the visitors. From there the instrument took off and its popularity surged and waned ever since.

I am hooked, and will be writing a bit more about the types of ukuleles, ukulele music and some instrument reviews over the next month or so. Stay tuned!



  1. When you're passing through, we ought to take you to a meeting of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz. They're huge, and fun!

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