The Amazing History of Ukuleles [Origin]

When people hear the word Ukulele, the nation that comes to everyone’s mind is Hawaii. It is known as a Hawaiian instrument, mainly a guitar-type musical instrument. A guitar family discovered this musical instrument. It was first built in 1879.

The history of the ukulele is not as simple as it appears because it has many stories and facts. More interestingly, you will be amazed to know how it changed when introduced in the United States. Apart from affecting the United States music industry, it also contributed profoundly for the while world music. A lot of interest and fun facts are there to learn from the history of the ukulele.

The Origins

Though most of us think ‘Ukulele’ mainly came from Hawaii, several studies found that Machete De Braga or Portuguese Braguinha is the primary origin of this musical instrument.

The physical appearance of a Ukulele is similar to a guitar since it has four strings like a guitar. Its tuning is also alike. However, its size is smaller than a guitar.

During the end of the 1950s, sugar plantations were one of the most potential economic powerhouses for Hawaiian people. But there was a lack of workers. So, people from other countries came to this island to work.

Among them, a massive number of Portuguese also immigrated. Many of them brought branguinhas with them.

A historical ship named Ravenscrag reached Honolulu Harbor on August 23, 1879, and freed several travelers from the ship after a painful trip.

One of the travelers (possibly, his name was Joao Fernandes) thanked all sailors of the ship for releasing them in a safe place by singing a beautiful song with the assistance of a branguina.

His performance touched the hearts of the local people of the island. Then, the branguina was named Jumping Flea. A close meaning of this word is the ukulele because of the hand posture on the fingerboard.

Evolution

Though it really appears as an exciting story, there is no way of proving how the name “jumping flea” came to be. Another preferred translation was given by Queen Lili’uokalani, the initial sovereign queen and the final king of Hawai’i. She thought “gift that came here” is a more appropriate meaning of the ukulele.

However, it is pretty sure three Portuguese woodworkers (José do Espirito Santo, Manuel Nunes, and Augusto Dias) are the primary inventor of the Ravenscrag word.

After returning from the sugar field every day, they would handcraft the musical instruments. The unique construction of the instrument in terms of size and shape makes it completely different from the guitar. People would love the unique tone it makes.

The Mystery of “Ukulele” Word

Having a different name from other musical instruments sets it apart. However, the real mystery is the story behind the name uke. Several stories are there, but one of them seems more relatable for the name.

As per many Hawaii historians, the “ukulele” word existed even before the introduction of this musical instrument.  Decades earlier, a pest had taken up residence on the island.

At the very beginning of the 1900s, John Griffith London, an American novelist, said that ukulele is a Hawaiian word in one of his books. He described the meaning of this word as ‘jumping flea.’ As per his perception, it is a young guitar (but not a guitar) for having a similar appearance.

After six years, the first Hawaiian ukulele virtuoso, Ernest Kaai, had mentioned the ukulele in his book. He said that Hawaiians have a unique musical instrument to play all the strings.

Regardless of how the word came to be used, it spread rapidly throughout the world. However, no one can deny the contribution of Queen Emma of Hawaii and the first sovereign queen, Lili’uokalani.

Both of them encouraged and supported the Hawaiians to use this musical instrument for developing various music and style from their own culture. Further, they would let people perform in many royal events to play the ukuleles. Even informal gatherings were not free from ukulele performances.

Popularity

The royal family of Hawaii played a vital role in the popularity of the ukulele. It was first noticed by the Hawaiian king, King David Kalakauna, and he was madly fond of this instrument.

In fact, he changed the traditional pattern and tone of this instrument to make it modern and compatible with modern music. He was such a fan of it that he added it in the Hawaiian traditional song and dance.

The king and his sister would spend a lot of time daily writing songs on the ukulele. The monarchs of Hawaii had taken all the necessary steps to make the ukulele part of their musical culture.

Expanding Into the Mainland

During the early 1900s, the tourism demand in Hawaii had skyrocketed. The beautiful nature of the islands and the unique music of the ukulele would make an excellent combination for tourist attractions.

Every day a lot of music shows would be arranged on the tropical islands to entertain tourists and locals. The beautiful music created from the ukulele was one of the hearts of seductions.

In 1915, a celebration for the ending of the project of the Panama Canal took place in San Francisco — it was a fair, which name was Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

During this fair, many exhibitions were displayed, but a Hawaiian Pavilion was the center of attention. Many hula artists and dancers would perform there to entertain visitors. This was one of the most points of convergence among the fair.

A famous composer, lyricist, and music publisher — Tin Pan Alley, was enamored by Hawaii music. Till then, there is no look back. Ukulele got immense popularity from the mainland to the islands. The fame of the ukulele was so high that the manufacturer started to make Ukuleles from the island.

The Present

In the mid of 1950s, the fame of the ukulele significantly dropped due to the introduction of rock and roll. It was on every kid’s bucket list to own a ukulele. After the insertion of guitars, kids would prefer to have a guitar instead of a ukulele.

However, we are now living in a modern world where everyone prefers uniqueness. That’s why the popularity of the ukulele is reviving gradually in part of the world. The primary reason is that the ukulele creates a unique tone that is absent in guitars. Moreover, it is easier to play than guitars.

But it is 100% true the popularity of the ukulele was never fade away, at least in Hawaii. Since it is interconnected with their traditional music and dances, it was always present in their culture.

A ukulele singer and activist of Hawaiian ancestry, late Israel “Iz” Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole, sang a popular song that became the bestseller song internationally. Another popular song played on the ukulele named Can’t Help Falling in Love was recorded by American singer Elvis Presley.

You will found thousands of popular songs that were played on the ukulele. This fun and easy instrument have taken a special place among many music lovers.

Why Choose Ukulele?

Like guitars, you will have many advantages for playing the ukuleles. Check out these benefits to know why you should choose ukulele kids and adults.

Coordination

Researchers found that playing the ukulele involves the simultaneous use of our brain, hands, and eyes. Great coordination incurs.

You have to focus on the particular string you are moving to achieve your targeted tone. As a result, it causes a significant development of action and coordination among the brain, hands, and eyes.

Effortless To Master

Compared to other stringed instruments, ukuleles are simpler to learn for beginners. The strings of ukuleles are made from nylon, making them soft and gentle. So, children won’t hurt their hands while playing it.

Apart from that, they have a compact size, meaning less wrist stress. You don’t have to go long to reach the notes. No stretching!

Inexpensive Instrument

Do you believe if I say the most expensive guitar in 2020 was more than 6 million dollars? Its name is “Kurt Cobain’s ‘MTV Unplugged guitar,” auctioned in Los Angeles, California.

Compared to guitars, the price of a ukulele is affordable. In fact, you can easily purchase a standard uke for $100. They have come in various shapes and sizes to fit your priority and price.

However, you will also find expensive ukuleles as the finest grade materials are used for them. This is actually for hobbyists. For example, music legend John D’Angelico crafted a ukulele named it “Elia ukulele” in 1930. Its estimated value is around $26,000.

Easy To Carry

Since ukuleles are small in size, they are portable and easy to carry. This travel instrument is perfect for carrying anywhere you want.

Keeping it on your vehicle trunk is absolutely okay. In fact, people who love both guitars and ukuleles prefer to bring to take a ukulele while outing due to its portability.

A Social Instrument

Ukuleles are fun to play. People of any age or any group can play this social ukulele. Not intimidating at all!

It suits anyone. Whether you want to play it for modern or classical music, it shows perfectness for all. It creates joyful and straightforward tones that attract anyone.

No Age Limit

Ukulele is not limited to a particular group of professionals. It is a top favorite among all people, from young people to guardians to acting professionals to old-age pensioners. However, most of the people are between 20-60 years who play the ukuleles.

Ukes Are Fun

Playing ukes boost your mood and gives you cheerfulness regardless of your age. If you want to have relaxed after a period of work or tension, you can choose to play a uke to slow down your pressure and have peace of mind, it also has an impact on your physical and mental health.

You either play your best-loved songs or make a new song of your own. Then you re-practice it several times so that you remember it for further playing it.

Ideal For Children

Ukuleles are perfect for children to learn music. In fact, many schools worldwide use this instrument to teach children how to play various types of songs using ukes. Since they have small sizes, they fit perfectly on children’s small hands.

Rich Happy & Sweet Sound

Ukulele is capable of creating warm and rich sounds to draw attention. The unique shape of this instrument leads to higher harmonics, meaning it creates distinct happy and sweet sounds.

Making anyone happy is simple by playing this practical instrument. Whether you are in the mood of playing it inside the home or in an open space outside the home, it suits all environments.

High Compatibility

Ukuleles have high compatibility to play various modern songs due to their “re-entrant” tuning.  You can even play songs that have complex chords since it features only four strings.

Whether you want to play rock, pop, classical, folk, or traditional songs, it fits everything. All this is possible due to its variety of genres. This is why many guitarists even become a fan of ukuleles due to their strong affinity.

Perfect For Songwriters

Very few musical instruments are as supportive as ukes for songwriting. Though it may seem awkward, it is not.

In many cases, such an infinite set of creative options is counterproductive. When people have distinct boundaries or don’t have unlimited options, they try to show their creativity in a proper direction, maintaining the standard.

Whether you talk about the strumming patterns or the chord shapes, writing on this instrument requires songwriters to keep things simple. Hence, ukes are a welcome alternative to the ever-increasing amount of complicated technology designed for songwriters.

Great Alternatives for Guitarists

Playing the guitar requires at least basic music knowledge. After all, you need to know which string you should touch while playing it. Guitarists will love to play the ukuleles since they already have excellent knowledge about playing instruments.

They will take less time to play professionally than any normal users. The reason is that they can utilize the chord shape and scale they learned from guitars.

The Rise and Fall of Ukulele​

Ukuleles had become an emblem of love of Hawaiian nationalism and support for Hawaii’s sovereignty when facing political unrest.

The popularity of Hawaii spread to other countries when more tourists were visiting the country. Tourists noticed the ukulele and showed great interest in this musical instrument.

Japan

Yukihiko Haida, a composer, ukulele player, and steel guitarist from Japan, visited Hawaii in 1929. He noticed the unique style and sound of the ukulele and introduced this instrument in his country. It had become so popular in Japan that the nation is known as the ukulele’s second home.

United Kingdom

During the 20th century, the popularity of the ukulele increased in the UK. So, why UK citizens loved the ukulele so much? The surge in popularity in the UK was incurred due to this musical instrument’s simple playability and compactness.

The nation has many famous ukulele players such as Tessie O’Shea (an entertainer and actress), George Formby (a singer-songwriter and comedian), etc.

United States

The American people showed great interest in this perfect gateway instrument though they didn’t understand the exotic territory’s Hawaiian music. A rise in popularity of the ukulele occurred in the United States between 1915 and 1920.

Many American guitarists and singers fall in love with this musical instrument. They would spend a lot of time every day learning about various chords and tones from it.

Many manufacturers from the United States took the ukulele’s popularity as an excellent advantage for selling this instrument. This pressurized the Hawaiian manufacturers to patent their own type of ukulele, and they even built different sizes and shapes of ukuleles.

Canada

The man who was in the main limelight for bringing the ukulele to Canada is J. Chalmers Doane, a Canadian educator, and musician. He utilized the ukulele to teach students about musical literacy in various music programs throughout Canada.

He thought this simple instrument was perfect for children and beginners as they could learn to play music more quickly than other musical instruments. Besides, it is expensive, so most of the parents could afford it at that time.

  1. Chalmers Doane would arrange for several musical programs every week aside from regular classes. So, children or youngsters who were not his class students could learn. Around 50,000 children and youngsters learned how to play the ukulele from the iconic Canadian music educator.

While interviewing in a program, he said — “It makes no difference what instrument you choose – recorder, trumpet, piano, bass, guitar, mandolin; none can compare with the ukulele as a means of music education in our schools.”

The Fall of Ukulele

From 1929 to 1939, a great depression was incurred around the whole world. It negatively affected the fame of the ukulele because of the grim realities during the period. It is one of the most noticeable downtimes for the ukulele’s popularity, which people will never forget.

Until the end of World War II, the fame of the ukulele didn’t rise noticeably. It took many years for people to overcome the great depression. Plus, people were having an economic hard time, so they were not much interested in it.

The effort to Regain Ukulele Popularity

Since people were not in stable financial conditions, they could not afford the regular priced ukulele. That’s why Mario Maccaferri (A plastic maker) used plastics instead of woods to make ukuleles. They have even manufactured 9 million ukuleles with a low price tag.

Though plastic-based ukuleles were inexpensive, people would still prefer to have a wood-based ukulele. So, until people worldwide gained a stable financial condition, the ukulele’s popularity didn’t increase considerably.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Occupies

Ukuleles were almost forgotten until Arthur Godfrey brought them back through the TV host in the 1950s. Millions of people watched him on the TV play the ukulele while wearing a Hawaiian outfit.

Many celebrities came into the limelight, including Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, and Elvis Presley.

Though manufacturers didn’t succeed much in selling plastic ukuleles earlier, the sales increased rapidly during this period. Basically, it became so famous that many Americans started to learn to play the ukuleles.

However, after the introduction of Twist and rock during the late 1950s, the popularity of ukuleles decline again. Children and young would play electric guitars in the rock ‘n’ roll scene.

New Beginning of the Ukulele

The popularity of the ukulele was significantly declined until the beginning of the 1990s. Suddenly, Israel Kamakawio’ole, a Hawaiian musician, hit a new vibe among music lovers through his “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” song.

During the early 2000s, the ukulele gained immense popularity. Ukulele sounds would be seen everywhere, from popular music to TV ads to musical shows to movie soundtracks.

In fact, many experienced guitarists and musicians sometimes used ukuleles instead of guitars for their rich and gentle tone. They would also use it in various open space concerts.

The real hype of the Ukulele skyrocket after a YouTube video went viral in 2006. A person uploaded a video of Jake Shimabukuro where he was playing the ukulele. Because of the video, more people were coming to the ukulele industry to build a career.

There was no turning back for the ukulele after that. Like guitars, millions of people around the world use this musical instrument to track their songs.

Many celebrities such as Tony Blair, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Zooey Deschanel came to the spotlight by playing the ukulele in their songs.

A large portion of ukulele sales occurs in the United States. In fact, the top 5 manufacturers of ukuleles are from the region. Every year, millions of ukuleles are sold in this country. Let’s see statistics on how the demand grew in the USA from 2009 to 2020.

Year Number of ukuleles sold (In Millions)
2009 0.501
2010 0.581
2011 0.895
2012 1.087
2013 0.966
2014 1.010
2015 1.197
2016 1.400
2017 1.750
2018 1.765
2019 1.602
2020 1.190

Ukulele Fun Facts

You have already learned a long history of the ukulele. Feeling bored? How about knowing some vibrant facts about the ukulele? Let’s check out.

  1. Though the ukulele was first made in 1879, nobody knows who is the actual maker of this musical instrument is.
  2. Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, would love playing the ukulele a lot. He had several collections of ukuleles in his home. He, in fact, took in on the moon and played it over there.
  3. During the 1920s, C. F. Martin Guitars first made the ukulele commercially to sell. Surprisingly, they sold almost an equal number of ukuleles and guitars at the first of ukulele production.
  4. Recently, the demand for ukuleles has been skyrocketing, and so do their sell. In fact, various manufacturers reported that the selling percentage for ukuleles had increased around 500-600% for the last few years.
  5. Earlier, manufacturers would use cat or sheep gut to make the strings of ukuleles. But now, they use nylon for strings because they create mellow sounds and are naturally comfortable to touch.
  6. George Harrison, an English musician, and singer-songwriter had a great passion for playing the ukulele. He, in fact, had hundreds of ukuleles in his home.
  7. Ukulele has become an inseparable cultural part for the Japanese. Playing this musical instrument is one of the most hobbies among the Japanese. People love it because they have easy playability and don’t cost a fancy amount to purchase.
  8. You think ukuleles only have one standard type? No! Soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone are the most common types of ukuleles available in the market, and they vary in shapes and sizes. You will also find a minuscule pocket ukulele, though it is uncommon.
  9. A regular ukulele features 4 strings, while a standard guitar features 6 strings. The tuning of a standard ukulele is followed byG, C, E, and A.
  10. Ukuleles are made from different woods around the world. But, Acacia Koa wood is the most reliable and premium-quality wood to make an authentic Hawaiian ukulele. They are crazy expensive than others and can create the most delicate type of tune.
  11. Ukulele Orchestras can be found in Great Britain that is tremendously popular. Internationally, they have been praised for their performances.

Final Thought

Though the ukulele is an integral tradition of Hawaiian music, it has been widespread throughout the world over time. Its shape, sound, variance, and types make it a top choice among music lovers.

Before the 2000s, older generations experienced the rise and fall of the ukulele. But for the last twenty years, its popularity didn’t decrease significantly. People from different generations, groups, and professions showed interest in this alluring musical instrument. They just love its plink-plink-plink sound and the feel it gives while playing it.

Ukulele has been on the earth around for 140 years, but it still holds a strong position in the music industry. Till the last 20 years, its popularity is not slowing down. People are increasingly interested in ukuleles, as it is easy to see why. Its different musical genres and styles attract music lovers to play it.

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