A Brief History of the Ukulele in Hawaii

The Hawaiian-style ukulele (“jumping flea”), pronounced in Hawaii as ooh (like boo)-koo-lele, as opposed to the more popular form you-ka-laylay, is a staple in Hawaiian music and culture. It is thought to have arrived here in the form of a Portuguese musical instrument called a machete in the 19th century. The machete, though, is not quite the same instrument as the ukulele. While both have wooden, smallish guitar-like bodies, the machete uses metal strings, while the ukulele uses nylon or catgut (natural fibers found in animal intestines… not a cat!) strings.

Most historians believe three immigrants from Madeira, Portugal, Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias were the first ukulele makers in Hawaii. While King Kalākaua, who reigned from 1874 – 1891, is largely credited with bringing the ukulele to the masses by incorporating it into performances at royal gatherings and luaus.

The ukulele, in general, is shaped like a mini acoustic guitar, though there are variants of this shape. The better ukuleles are made from hard woods like mahogany and acacia koa. Less expensive ukuleles are constructed in plastic, plywood or laminate woods. There are four main sizes of ukulele: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone.

While the ukulele reached a bit of a pop culture climax in 1968 when Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” became a hit song, it saw a steady decrease in popularity until the 1990s. In 1993, though, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (Bruddah Iz) recorded what is arguably the most popular ukulele song of all-time. His “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” medley reached number 12 on the Billboard charts and can be heard in countless movies, TV shows and commercials.

Today, the ukulele can be heard in recordings from popular artists like Adele, Deathcab for Cutie and Jack Johnson. Eddie Vedder, the frontman for Pearl Jam recorded an entire album using a ukulele called “Ukulele Songs” in 2011. Though maybe not nationally known, Hawaiian artist Jake Shimabukuro’s ukulele cover of the Beatles “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” currently has multiple versions on YouTube, totaling over 20 million views.

Like a palm tree swaying gently in the wind, freshly sliced pineapple and sandy beaches with crystal clear blue waters, the ukulele delivers a sense of place, a memory of Hawaii, no matter where in the world you happen to be.