The Beginning of the Ukulele


Between 1878 and 1913, more than 20,000 Portuguese men, women, and children undertook the hazardous voyage from Madeira, the Azores, and mainland Portugal to begin a new life in the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1879, the ‘ukulele, which was called a Braguinha (a 5-string instrument, with tuning similar to our modern ‘ukulele) came from Braga, Portugal, and made the long voyage to Honolulu, Hawaii.

The “Original” Baby Guitar
The Resurgence of the ‘Ukulele

Recently, it seems that the latest guitar wave is the “baby” guitar. It’s small, easy to carry and hold, and easy for travel. But the true baby guitar has been with us for many years … yes, the famous ‘ukulele.

Its greatest popularity today is throughout Polynesia, and especially in the Hawaiian Islands. However, the ‘ukulele is making its comback everywhere, throughout the continental United States to Japan and Europe.

Professional performers such as Lyle Ritz, Led Kaapana, Abe Lagrimas Jr., Herb Ohta Sr. and Herb Ohta Jr., Bill Tapia, Shawn Reyes, Chino Montero, Troy Fernandez, Benny Chong, Peter Moon, James Hill, Byron Yasui, Andy Sexton, B.B. Shawn, Moe Keale and now his nephew Mike Keale, Tracey Terada, Jake and Bruce Shimabukura, and many more are proving that the ‘ukulele has, and always will have its place in the lineup of stringed instruments.

Our “little” guitar has between 4 and 10 strings and is actually big on tone and sweet in sound. It can be used as a solo instrument, or accompaniment to most any music, from classical to jazz, and now country, reggie, and rock.

Although dearly loved now by the people Hawaii, the ‘ukulele was not always appreciated. It was at first ridiculed as a “hideous Portugese instrument” by so-called respectable people who were used to the traditional stringed instruments.

Portugese sailors and traders first brought the “little guitar” to Hawaii, and it was actually introduced and played publicly for the first time by a Portugese immigrant named Joao Fernandez, in 1879. The ‘ukulele was then called a Braguinha because the first one had been manufactured in the province of Braga, Portugal.

Maui Band 1907

Some have called it a cavaquinho, however the cavaquinho is far different in every aspect to the ‘ukulele, coming from a different family of instruments, cavaco and rajao. But in Hawaii, the name ‘ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-ley-ley) was adopted, and has now been accepted today throughout the world. ‘Uku in Hawaiian means flea, and lele is jump or leap, and thus the nickname “jumping flea.”

Fernandez was a real virtuoso. He had a fantastic ability to play and entertain fellow passengers on the long voyage from Madeira, Portugal to Honolulu, Hawaii with the “braguinha” of another passenger, who was unable to play it. The story goes that he could play any song once he heard it, and his nimble, flying fingers plucked the melody and strummed the chords.

Quickly the Ali’i (the Hawaiian Royalty) including King Kalakaua, Queen Emma, and the future queen, Liliuokalani (all themselves accomplished musicians) commanded performances, and in no time all Hawaiians were in love with this new musical instrument.

By the early 1900’s anyone with the skill to manufacture found an open market. Hawaii’s first ‘ukulele maker was a furniture maker who scrapped his furniture business to produce ‘ukuleles exclusively. At that time an ‘ukulele sold for about $5.00, and many were actually well made, and sounded good.

The ‘ukulele craze caught on, business boomed, and eventually the U.S. mainland manufacturers began mass production. Consequently, Hawaii’s builders began losing money. Mainland companies cashed in on the advertisements long used in Hawaii, linking the ‘ukulele with luaus, moonlit nights, and the romance of the islands. When the chairman of the Hawaiian Promoton Committee wrote a note of protest to a music store in San Francisco, California, a nasty letter came back saying that Hawaii shouldn’t complain, because “the mainland companies were turning out better ‘ukuleles”.

Consequently, at that time, the Honolulu Ad Club patented the ‘ukulele, making it Hawaii’s very own. During World War I there was a booming ‘ukulele business, but by the end of the 1920’s the craze was dying off.

Gradually, most Hawaiian manufacturers gave up. However today many new builders in Hawaii have emerged, producing the finest ‘ukuleles ever made. Although ‘ukuleles are again built around the world, Hawaii can still say that the ‘ukulele is its “own”.

Many woods are used in the construction of the ‘ukulele; however, the most common and most revered is the beautiful Koa tree. Other excellent woods used are Mahogany, Mango, Kamani, Milo, Kulawood (Gold Shower Tree), and top woods such as Spruce, Cedar, and Sequoia Redwood. Sizes range from the small Soprano (in Hawaii it is called Standard), the Concert, Tenor, and Baritone, and even the recent Solid Body Cutaway, all with a variety of string combinations including 4, 6, 8, and even 10 for the steel string Tiple.

Normally plain and wound nylon strings are used, but some builders use steel strings. Yes, the resurgence of the ‘ukulele is real, and it seems this time, it’s here to stay. Entire clubs and museums have been organized. Stores are now devoted exclusively to the ‘ukulele, and besides the famous annual Honolulu ‘Ukulele Festival, many more ‘Ukulele Festivals are celebrated throughout the world.

So, in a world of stress and sorrow, our littlest “baby” guitar, the ‘ukulele, will warm your heart and make you smile.

John Kitakis,
Ko’olau Guitar and ‘Ukulele Company.

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