The history of the ukulele has a lot of twists and turns. How much do you really know about the history of this amazing instrument though? You love the sound and look of the ukulele. You love playing it, and you’ve been listening to all of the legendary players out there. Most know that it has an intimate association with the Hawaiian Islands, but few really know the origin. Let’s go back in time a bit to see where it all started and what it was that brought about the ukulele you know and love today.
The history of the ukulele started around 125 years ago, when immigrants from Portugal came to Hawaii and brought with them a unique four-stringed instrument called the “machete de braga”. This instrument proved to be very popular with people on the island, and it was not long before it morphed into the ukulele.
Three cabinetmakers, Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose do Espirito Santo from Madeira, opened up a shop in Honolulu in 1886 that created and sold the machete instruments. The name soon changed to ukulele – which means jumping flea, for those who don’t know – and the popularity continued to grow. In fact, it grew so much that it became the national instrument of the Kingdom.
Why was the ukulele so popular, so quickly? Besides being a fantastic instrument, it gained the attention of the Hawaiian royal family. King David Kalakaua was a composer and musician, who loved the ukulele. He was also friends with Dias. Additionally, there was a redesign of the machete, which helped to make the instrument easier to learn and play. Add in the use of koa wood and changes to the tuning, and it made the instrument uniquely different from the machete. Today, it is one of the elements most associated with Hawaii.
People from the mainland fell in love with Hawaii, and that love affair continues to this day. They loved the tropical island and the romance that it evoked, and it was not long before the ukulele made its way across the waters and into the hands of many other musicians. In the early 1900s, many musicians were using the instrument, mentioning it in their songs, and talked about Hawaii in those songs. This sparked peoples’ imaginations, and soon ukulele instruction books started appearing to help people learn the instrument even though they weren’t in Hawaii.
Many manufacturers started to make different types and sizes of ukes to appeal to different players. They made some high quality instruments, but to meet demand, they also created novelty ukuleles, which were very cost effective. They were made from lower quality materials and they didn’t sound as good, but they typically featured cartoon characters and other fun designs. While they may not have been concert worthy, they were still fun and a good introduction to those who would eventually want to learn on a better instrument. They were very popular through the 1920s.
Through the 1930s, the popularity dipped, but soon picked up after WW2 and through the 50s and 60s. The resurgence of interest in Hawaii’s instrument helped it gain the attention of some very prominent people, including Arthur Godfrey. He had a radio show with an audience of more than 40 million people. He played the instrument on the radio, and on his television shows. He even gave lessons on his television shows! This led to far more people learning about the instrument and falling in love.
What about today? The ukulele is more popular than ever, and you can see and hear it on television shows, in movies, and more. YouTube has been an important part of the new popularity as well. You can find some great videos there of people playing some classic Hawaiian songs, as well as people doing covers of new songs. One thing is certain – the ukulele is here to stay.
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