Ukulele: From Portuguese Roots to American Pop Culture Icon
When people think of Hawaii, images of crystal blue waters, pristine shores, leis, and hula dancers come to mind. The sounds of the islands conjure the calming waves, bonfires and the sound of Hawaii’s signature instrument, the ukulele. The first song that comes to mind could even be Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole classic cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
The Great Bruddah Iz
The ukulele or “uke” for short, instrument has been an accessible instrument because of its four strings – enticing aspiring musicians and hobbyists. The small body makes it is extremely portable and its sweet timbre creates laidback sounds that can relax the most stressful of minds.
The uke traces its roots back to Portuguese immigrants who traveled to Hawaii to work the islands’ vast sugar cane fields. Its forefather, the Portuguese machete de braga, was a similar small bodied guitar-like instrument with five strings. Hailing from the island of Madeira, three cabinetmakers Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose do Espirito Santo came to Hawaii and would eventually become the first ukulele luthiers by 1889. These three men took the machete and reimagined it with four strings, making it simpler to use. Sadly, Jose suffered an untimely death in 1905 and Augusto was struck with pulmonary tuberculosis, forcing him into an early retirement.
Manuel Nunes started his own instrument company with his sons Leonardo and Julius. They claimed themselves to be the “Manufacturers of the only genuine ukulele, Hawaii’s sweetest toned instrument.” A few years after, Manuel began listing himself as the “Inventor of the Original Ukulele” in Honolulu directory. Although Manuel was the most prolific ukulele luthier, historians agree all three men, along with the help of King Kalakua, popularized the portable instrument.
By 1916, Samuel Kamaka, Sr., a native Hawaiian, opened his own shop “Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works” in the basement of his home. His signature creation would be an oval-shaped ukulele painted to look like a pineapple. The unique patented shape and look of the Kamaka ukulele gave him an edge in the booming ukulele market in the mid 1920’s.
Around the time Kamaka introduced the pineapple ukulele, America had been caught up in a Hawaiian craze thanks to entertainers romanticizing the paradisiacal islands. Guitar manufacturers on the mainland created their own iterations of the uke to capitalize on the fad. Respected acoustic guitar luthier C. F. Martin & Co made beautifully crafted instruments using Hawaiian Koa wood and pearl inlays to give the ukulele a high-end look. The Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Company tried to fuse the small neck of a ukulele to the body of a banjo, giving birth to the UB-1 Banjolele.
Since then the ukulele has cemented itself in popular American culture. The instrument has made it onto the big screen with some notable actors including Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot” (1959) while Elvis Presley strummed one in “Blue Hawaii” (1961).
Although traditional ukuleles are made from wood, you no longer have to be a skilled woodworker to make your own uke! Thanks to 3D printing, you can make your own one at home! (assuming you have a printer) So what are you waiting for? If you’ve always wanted to play music, the ukulele is a great beginner’s instrument for all ages!
Lastly, below is the first ukulele video that I ever watched on YouTube in 2007. In my opinion, one of the most beautiful covers of my favorite Beatles song. I became obsessed and eventually picked up a ukulele for myself later that year!
Jake Shimabukuro covering While My Guitar Gently Weeps