Ukuleles – A Case of Cross Cultural Pollination

The ukulele is not originally Hawaiian but is actually an instrument that was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when Joao Fernandez, a Portuguese immigrant to arrived in Honolulu aboard the Portuguese ship the Ravenscrag. He came with 500 other immigrants from the island of Madeira to work in the Sugar cane fields. Instead of working he spent much of his time playing Portuguese folk songs on a borrowed cavaquinho, a small 4 string guitar shaped instrument made of pine wood. The natives he entertained thought his fingers moved like “jumping fleas”. Although it is open for conjecture, this strange image is a rough translation of the Hawaiian word, “ukulele”. Fernandez soon played his instrument for King David Kalakaua, Queen Emma, and Queen Liliuokalani. King David soon became a practitioner himself and introduced it to other royals. Soon local craftsmen started building and modifying the instrument. The most popular wood used in it’s construction is the Hawaiian koa wood. Island musicians started trying alternate tunings and playing methods. Because of it was so portable, light weight, and had such a pleasing sound, it became the most popular instrument on the island. In Hawaiian bands since Fernandez’s time, the ukulele has often been accompanied by the slack steel guitar, the mandolin, and Hawaiian drums. As it has been used in other styles of music, the uke can be accompanied by just about any musical instrument and sound great

Many people think the ukulele is strictly an Hawaiian or tropical instrument but this is far from the truth. As the ukulele grows in popularity, it is being used in almost every style of music including folk, rock, jazz, and classical. Today there are ukulele fests all over the world that offer concerts and workshops by some of the most talented players in the world. At the uke fest I went to in New York, there was one huge room filled with every style and type of ukulele. Many famous uke vendors and entertainers, like Jumping Jim Beloff, were there to display their wares. If you like unique ukes, you can buy a cigar box uke there or buy the kit to make one yourself. Jumping Jim carries his line of “Flukes” and “Flees”, triangular and oval shaped ukes made of a durable plastic. They were invented by his brother in-law. They sound as good as the wooden uke and the flukes stand up by themselves! The smallest and highest pitched ukuleles are the sopranos, with the strings tuned GCEA, as are the larger tenor and concert ukes. The lower pitched and largest uke is the baritone: it is tuned like the first 4 strings of a guitar: DGBE. If you are a ukulele enthusiast, check out a uke fest or just explore how many ways a ukulele can be used!