The small yet might ukulele has been experiencing something a renaissance in recent years. Everyone remembers Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s marvelous mash up of (Somewhere) Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World, which has accumulated more than one billion view on YouTube. It may have even caused you to pick up the ukulele. Read on to learn more about the origins of this beloved little instrument.
The ukulele as we know it today traces its roots to 1880s Hawaii, following the arrival of immigrant laborers intending to work on sugar plantations. Many of these workers traveled from Atlantic colonies of Portugal, and some brought with them small string instruments like the braguinha, cavaquinho, rajão, and timple. Legend has it that the name ukulele was coined in 1879, after a sailor from the English ship Ravenscrag played his braguinha in Honolulu Harbor to celebrate after a difficult voyage. The Hawaiians dubbed his instrument the ukulele, meaning “dancing flea,” referring to the player’s dexterous fingers.
Three Portuguese craftsmen also arrived on the Ravenscrag in 1879: Augusto Dias, José do Espirito Santo, and Manuel Nunes, all of whom started building Portuguese-style string instruments after paying off their debts in the sugar cane fields. These instruments quickly became popular among the Hawaiian populace, so much so that the king of Hawaii, David Kalakauna, began to promote its use in courtly music and dance. King Kalakauna’s sister, Queen Lili’uokalani, was a prolific composer and a very good ukulele player, and is best known musically for her work Aloha ʻOe.
In the early 1900s, tourism was a growing industry in Hawaii, and before long the ukulele had spread to the South America and the United States. Due to to its portability, simple construction, and ease of use, it quickly became a favorite among professional and amateur musicians alike. Are you interested in learning to play the ukulele? Contact Thompson Tutoring for music lessons today!