The Ukulele - A Brief History

    Article Index

    The Early Years: 1860's ~ 1920's


         In the year 1879, the first Portuguese arrived in Hawaii. Included among the many things they brought from their native land was a small stringed instrument called the Portuguese Braga, sometimes also referred to as a Braguiñha.

    nunes     In that same year, a ship named the "Ravenscrag" arrived in Hawaii from Portugal. The ship carried about 400 men, women and children from Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal. In that first group of first arrivals were three musical instrument makers, Augusto Diaz, Manuel Nunes (pictured at left), and José do Espirito Santo.

         Each one of these men has been credited, at one time or another, with taking the braguiñha and modifying it into the instrument we know today as the 'ukulele. The instrument has now become as much of the Hawaiian culture as the pineapple.

         Also on board the "Ravenscrag" was a musician named Joaõ Fernandez. One popular belief is that when the ship arrived in Honolulu harbour, Fernandez jumped onto the wharf and began singing and strumming lively Portuguese folk songs. The Hawaiian people were noticeably moved by the performance and were immediately taken by the small stringed instrument he was playing.

    How did the 'ukulele get its name? According to a pamphlet at the Bishop Museum:

    "The instrument was heard one day by Edward Purvis, a British army officer who was Vice-Chamberlain of King Kalakaua's court. He was delighted with the size and the sound and asked to be taught, and soon he was playing for various court functions.

    Because of Mr. Purvis' small build and his lively antics while performing on the instrument. he was compared to a jumping flea. The Hawaiians, fond of nicknames, called him "ukulele". (Uku meaning flea, and Lele meaning jumping). The instrument was an instant success and even King Kalakaua learned to play it."

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         In 1880, Manuel Nunes was the first to open a ukulele shop in Hawaii. Many others soon followed, including both Diaz and Santo who worked for a short period of time for Nunes.

         By the early 1900’s the ukulele was showing up in several west coast cities in the United States. It wasn’t until 1915 that the ukulele really became popular in North America. In 1916, Samuel Kamaka (pictured on right) began manufacturing ukuleles in Hawaii in a large scale. kamaka

         Made from Koa wood unique to Hawaii, the Kamaka Ukulele remains to this day, one of the most renowned ukuleles in the world. Prices can range from $400 to over $2000 for a handmade Koa ukulele.

         From the 1920’s to the 1950’s the ukulele experienced tremendous growth in popularity. In North America, the C.F.Martin guitar company began manufacturing ukuleles. Using Mahogany as their choice wood, they soon established themselves as one of the premiere ukulele makers in the world. Today there are numerous ukulele manufacturers both in Hawaii and in other parts of the world. In addition, there are many other custom builders who build exquisite ukuleles in many styles and shapes.

         Other prominent ukulele makers today include Kala, Oscar Schmidt, Koaloha, Lanikai, Kanile'a, Pono, and many others. Quality sounding 'ukuleles are now produced worldwide to accommodate all levels of playing skills.


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    1920's to Present Day

         The Hawaiians were quick to accept the ukulele and it became an important part of the basic foundation of the "Hawaiian 'Ukulele" sound we know today. It was used primarily as a rhythm instrument. However, it did not remain a "Hawaiian" instrument in the sense that it was adopted and played in many other countries, especially North America.

         Because the ukulele had only four strings, it was easy to play. One could easily learn to strum it and sing with it with little or no prior training. People from all parts of the world quickly accepted it, especially during the Roaring 20’s period in the United States. That was the beginning of world acceptance and the recognition that the ukulele was a legitimate musical instrument, from its roots as a mere novelty to credibiliy in the hands of today's virtuoso artists.

         As an instrument to accompany singing, it is perhaps the simplest of all instruments. In a matter of some 30 minutes, one can learn 3 or 4 basic chords and strum an acceptable accompaniment for singing many, many songs.

    elvis     As a solo instrument, it required, as any musical instrument does, formal study and lots of practice. From the 1920's onwards, names such as Roy Smeck, George Formby, Cliff (Ike) Edwards to Elvis Presley (pictured on left) , Pat Boone (pictured on right), the Beatles and others helped to spread the popularity of the 'ukulele. 


         In the modern era, names such as Jim Beloff, Herb Ohta, Troy Fernandez, Chalmers Doane, and the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole have left their mark on the ukulele scene.

         The current generation of 'ukulele virtuosos includes the likes of Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, Kimo Hussey, and their female counterparts, Brittni Paiva and Taimane Gardner. 

         These musicians, and many others to follw helped with the resurgence in popularity of the ukulele today. It was the simplicity of the instrument that first attracted the Hawaiians to the instrument and it is still drawing many people, young and old to learn to play it today.


    The content of the preceeding article are taken from various sources, and do not represent the views or opinions of the author or B.C.

    Credits and photos: Courtesy of:

    1) "Ukulele O Hawaii" by Ohta San. Published by Kamaka Hawaii, Inc. 
    2) "The Ukulele A Visual History" by Jim Beloff. Published by Miller Freeman Books


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