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The Ukulele

The ukulele.

The ukulele. Photo courtesy of John Cheung.

The Story of the Ukulele in Hawaii

Residents of Portuguese origins only comprise a relative small percentage of Hawaii’s population. But their contributions to the Aloha State’s culture have been immense. As examples, Hawaii repertoire of culinary options would certainly not be the same. Such dishes have included Portuguese bean soup, malasadas and Portuguese sausage. It would be hard to imagine everyday life in Hawaii without them.

Their Biggest Contribution

But perhaps, the biggest contributions of the Portuguese in Hawaii is the unique musical instrument, the ukulele. This magical string instrument has greatly affected Hawaii’s cultural heritage. But it has also impacted music lovers throughout the world.

Most Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii during the late 1800s to early 1900s to work on sugar plantations. Most came from the Portuguese islands of the Azores, Cape Verde and Madera. They also brought their music and later made adaptations of musical instruments from their home country.

The First Ukulele Makers

Wanting to perpetuate the rich musical heritage of their homeland, Hawaii’s Portuguese immigrants fashioned instruments. Three Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo and Augusto Dias, were the first ukulele makers. The design of the ukulele was similar to number of small guitar-like instruments from Portugal. These included the machete, the cavaquinho, the timple and the rajão.

There are several stories how ukulele got its name. One of them was that its name roughly translates to “jumping flea.” This was a tribute to the rapid movement of the fingers in playing the instrument.

Popularizing the Ukulele

Probably the most important person in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was King Kalākaua. A patron of the arts, he incorporated the ukulele into performances at royal gatherings and functions.

Hawaii’s musicians first made the ukulele popular at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Here, the Hawaiian Pavilion featured an ensemble of George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet. It also featured ukulele maker and player Jonah Kumalae. Most people today attribute the ukulele’s worldwide appeal to celebrity Arthur Godfrey. He personally played and showcased the ukulele on his popular television shows during the 1940 to 1950s.

The Ukulele Today

After the 1960s, the ukulele declined in popularity until the late 1990s. This was when interest in the instrument reappeared. Legendary Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole helped re-establish the instrument in his songs. Films, television programs and commercials used his song like Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. More recently, Jake Shimabukuro established himself as the world’s leading ukulele virtuoso. National television has showcased his masterful rendition of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps. This show has also gone viral on YouTube.

Today, the ukulele is played by many and its melodious tunes are appreciated by many more. We can thank Hawaii’s Portuguese immigrants for creating this wonderful musical instrument. It’s a gift enjoyed not only by the people of Hawaii, but also by millions throughout the world.