Ode to the Ukulele

Posted on May 25, 2014


On first impressions, small things usually seem unimpressive – the ukulele is one such example. It seems too simple; surely an unspectacular instrument with a sound that only suits folk songs and Hawaiian holidays. You can buy one in a kid’s toy shop, after all.

But looks are deceiving. As one writer puts it, it is “a symbol of an island paradise; a musical joke; a highly sought-after collectible; a cheap airport souvenir,” among many other things.

The ukulele, as I’ve been learning these past few weeks since deciding to learn to play it, is a study in unexpected surprises. Much like its name, which means “jumping flea” in the Hawaiian language, it flits around from one song to the next, capably taking on everything from pre-wartime love songs to post-shaved head Britney. Its history seems to capture the blending of cultures, the sadness of wartime, the royal lineage of Hawaii and the essence of lazy Sunday afternoons all at once. On top of that, it turns out to be an especially friendly instrument to play. But let’s start at the beginning of the unexpected:

Who would have thought, as the Portugese arrived in Hawaii, that their musical tunes would be the key to bringing two cultures – previously oceans apart – together. Over 125 years ago, Portuguese sugar cane workers docked in Honolulu looking for work. They’d come a long way, in a time when ocean travel didn’t always end well. So they celebrated their safe arrival that evening with Portuguese folksongs on a small four-stringed instrument known as the machete.

The locals loved it – one newspaper, the Hawaiian Gazette, reported two weeks after their arrival that “a band of Portuguese musicians, composed of Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The musicians are true performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music.”

This wave of immigration from Portuguese immigrants lasted about thirty years, of which more than 10,000 immigrants arrived in the first decade. Gradually, these small four-stringed instruments were carried by farm workers into the taro fields, where they became known as ‘taro patch fiddles‘ or pila li’ili’i, little fiddles.

A national instrument
As the popularity of the machetes grew, so did creative adaptations of the instrument’s design. Before too long the machete was redesigned as the easier-to-play ukulele. With an adapted tuning and a body made of native koa wood, it was elevated in status from fun musical instrument to a symbol of aloha aina, or love of the land. The use of the native Hawaiian koa wood, which had long been associated with royalty, turned the ukulele into a political tool – in an era of great political turmoil, the use of an instrument made of wood that represented the sovereignty of the Hawaiian royals was seen as an act of support for a struggling Hawaiian monarchy, flailing in their attempts to keep the islands’ independence.

The instrument’s association with the royal family was enhanced by the King’s love of its music – King David Kalakaua (1836-1891), an accomplished musician and composer was an avid ukulele player who even learned to build his own ukuleles.

Crescendo, decrescendo, crescendo
Ukeleles were taken to the American mainland in 1893, where they were shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They were slowly taken around the stages of North America as part of vaudevillian acts in Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Buffalo and Atlantic City.

When Hawaiians opened their own manufacturing shops for ukuleles in the first decade of the 20th century, it was not long before the uke became one of the most popular musical instruments in the world. At its peak, ukulele manufacturer Martin made 14,000 ukuleles in 1926. Even Edward, Prince of Wales played the ukulele in the mid-1920s – Harmony built a special, gold-engraved uke for him, with his coat-of-arms and seal embossed on it.

But the Depression brought an end to the frivolity of the ukulele. By 1933, uke-maker Sam Kamaka estimated he was selling 15 ukuleles a month, down from three to four hundred a month in better times before the Depression.

By the end of the Depression, the guitar had won people over, largely because the electric guitar was gaining momentum with the advent of recording technologies.

But the ukulele never disappeared altogether. Over the following decades, famous players included Paul McCartney, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London and Agatha Christie. And that brings us to today, where the ukulele has returned to the echelons of popular musical instruments. With even SpongeBob Squarepants sporting a ukulele on his adventures, it has become the ultimate musical accessory.

The heart of the ukulele’s popularity seems to lie in its ubiquitous appeal. You don’t need to be Mozart to play it, and it seems just as much at home in an Amanda Palmer concert as it does in a six-year old’s toybox.

Posted in: Creativity, Music