The History of the Ukulele

The ukulele has long been a Hawaiian icon

The ukulele has long been a Hawaiian icon

It’s a quaint little instrument, and though the sound it produces isn’t exactly commanding, the ukulele has become an icon of Hawaiian culture. Travel the islands and you’ll likely come across the occasional ukulele performance. One place you’re sure to see some of the best performances on the ukulele, however, is at a Hawaiian luau.

The music you hear at luaus is performed by seasoned pros, meaning whoever is picking up the sweet little instrument is well-versed on how to make its strings sing.

Let’s take a closer look at the history of this iconic “Hawaiian” instrument.

Interesting. Tell Me More.

The ukulele actually has a history that really is interesting. For example, you may have noticed that we put quotes around “Hawaiian” up there. That’s because the ukulele didn’t even originate in Hawaii!

OK. So Where Did It Come From?

The Hawaiian people eagerly adopted the ukulele soon after its introduction to the islands

The Hawaiian people eagerly adopted the ukulele soon after its introduction to the islands

Much of Hawaii’s culture actually originated somewhere else, and the ukulele is an example of that. While many elements of Hawaiian culture come from the islands of Polynesia, the ukulele is an exception. It didn’t originate in the Pacific at all. In fact, the earliest forms of the instrument can be traced back to the island of Madeira in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Morocco.

Madeira has long been a haven for European visitors. Those wishing to escape the cold climate of Europe would travel to Madeira and be greeted by an island filled with wine, music, and exotic landscapes. It was the capital city of Funchal that drew much of the attention and it was here that a common four-stringed instrument, the machete or braginha, would be played in the streets.

The picturesque setting wasn’t destined to last, sadly, and by mid-1800s, the port city was ravaged by famine and poverty, the result of a series of natural disasters. These caused a collapse in the local wine industry, which made up much of the island’s income. With conditions on their beautiful island deteriorating, locals sought an escape. Luckily, the Hawaiian Islands were in desperate need of workers on the sugar and pineapple plantations.

That’s Interesting, I guess. But What About the Ukulele?

Well, the ukulele came with the immigrants, specifically a trio: Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo. The three of them worked on a Hawaiian sugar plantation when they arrived to the islands, but they wouldn’t remain field laborers forever. After fulfilling their contracts, they left the plantation and set their sights on Honolulu, to return to their original occupation as woodworkers.

Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro

Ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro

Before long, each of the three had his own shop, and were making names for themselves as makers of “guitars, machetes, and all stringed instruments.” It’s not clear which of them actually first started making the ukulele, which was sort of a hybrid of the machete and the five-string rajao of Portugal.

When Hawaiians adopted the ukulele, they gave it its current name, which translates to “jumping flea.” Since it’s such a lively instrument, the ukulele has a central place at festive events like luaus.

Anything Else?

We’re glad you asked. To pronounce it correctly, like a local, say “oo-koo-leh-leh.” Sure, you might get a few funny looks, but you’ll have the smug satisfaction of knowing something they don’t. You’re welcome.