The ukelele has become so synonymous with Hawaii it’s hard to believe that it didn’t originate there. But in fact the instrument started out as a four-string guitar called a machete de braca in Portugal, and was brought to the islands by immigrants who came to work in the sugar cane fields during the 19th century. There are a number of different stories about exactly how this happened, but one that is especially popular today among ukelele fans is that is was brought over on the ship Ravenscrag, which landed there in August 1879. One of the men on board, Joao Fernandes, celebrated the landing by playing songs from his native country. The Hawaiians were so impressed with his rapidly-moving fingers they called them “ukelele” (jumping fleas), and the name stuck.
Resembling a small guitar, the ukelele is made of wood with a flat top and back and almost always has four strings, although several types exist with five, six or even eight strings. The strings were originally of gut, but now are usually of nylon. In addition to the familiar small size models, ukeleles also come in tenor and baritone sizes, and can be played either with a flat pick or the fingers.
By 1900, the ukelele (properly pronounced oo-keh-LEH-leh) had become the most popular instrument in Hawaii, played by both laborers and kings. Many of the country’s monarchs played the instrument, and one, King David Kalahaua, even built his own. But, although it had been seen in a number of expositions elsewhere in the world, it remained largely unknown until 1915, the year of the Pacific-Panama Exposition in San Francisco. At this celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, the Hawaiian government spent over $100,000 – an enormous sum for the time – on a special pavilion where shows featuring native music and hula ran several times a day. The music was a huge hit with the public and started a craze for Hawaiian music and the ukelele especially. For instance, between 1916 and the late 1930s the Martin company made over 14,000 of the instruments! But by 1940 it had fallen out of favor. It became hugely popular again in the early 1950s through the efforts of Arthur Godfrey, who had one of the most popular television programs at the time, then fell out of favor again. Currently, however, it seems to be experiencing yet another renaissance; there are several annual festivals held throughout the country and Kamaha, the world’s largest manufacturer of the instrument, has a 12-month backlog.