The Ukulele is one of Hawaii’s more popular instruments. But it’s not a Hawaiian instrument. To the contrary, it was introduced by a different country and it was the Hawaiians who adapted it to their own culture and gave it a new name.
The ukulele actually came from the Madeira Islands located just off the coast of Portugal during the 1880s. And it was not even called a ukulele at that time. It was a machete de braga. It’s part of the guitar family and included other similar instruments such as the cavaquinho, the timple, and the rajao.
Meanwhile in Hawaii, planters were working in the sugar fields. Diseases and European colonization had caused their population to decline. As a result, there were not enough workers to maintain the plantations and factories. So the Hawaiians started looking to other parts of the world for help. That’s when the Portuguese decided to sail over and give them a hand. And with them came this lively stringed instrument we later called the ‘ukulele.’
When the sailors set foot on the Hawaiian islands, there was so much joy and excitement that they broke out in song and dance. The Hawaiians loved the sound of this instrument, so much so they began playing it at many of the royal functions. Years later the sailors set up their own shops making more of these instruments for others to play. King Kalakaua promoted it as a “Hawaiian” instrument and so it became part of the local Hawaiian music and hula performances.
It’s unclear how the ukulele actually got its name. When we translate it to English, “uku” means “flea” and “lele” means “to jump around.” Before the ukulele was modernized to what it is today, the instrument was more round and may have been the shape of a flea. It was also very lively with people jumping around as they played the instrument.
Other stories tell us about an Englishman named Edward Purvis who was very small in size but had a fidgety manner. He played the ukulele for King Kalakaua very often. He knew the instrument well, moving his fingers about so fast that it almost imitated that of a “jumping flea.” It’s thought that Edward’s nickname was ukulele and so it also became known as the name of the instrument he played.
About a century later, the ukulele became a well known instrument among the Hawaiians. It is now used to accompany many Hawaiian songs and dances. And it’s also being celebrated with the Annual Ukulele Festival every summer at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand in Waikiki.
Thousands of people attend this international event every year. There’s a full ukulele orchestra of over 800 students. And a number of guest artists from around the world come to make their performances here.
This years festival will be on Sunday, July 16, 2017 from 10:30 am – 5:00 pm.
Learn the Ukulele
If you come to Hawaii, you should set some time aside to learn how to play the ukulele. The Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki offers cultural programming in which many hula and Polynesian events are presented. There’s also complimentary classes in such things as lei making, hula, and ukulele.
Image by: wfla.com