Between 1878 and 1913, more than 20,000 Portuguese men, women,
and children undertook the hazardous voyage from Madeira, the
Azores, and mainland Portugal to behind a new life in the
1879, the 'ukulele, called the Braginho in Braga, Portugal, made
the long voyage to Honolulu, Hawaii.
The "Original" Baby Guitar
The Resurgence of the 'Ukulele
Recently, it seems
that the latest guitar wave is the "baby" guitar. It's small,
easy to carry and hold, and easy for travel. But the true baby
guitar has been with us for many years; yes, the famous
popularity today is throughout Polynesia, and especially in the
Hawaiian Islands. However, the 'ukulele is making its comeback
everywhere, from the eastern United States to Japan and Europe.
performers such as Lyle Ritz, Led Kaapana, Herb Ohta, Chino
Montero, Troy Fernandez, Ben Chong, Peter Moon, Byron Yasui,
Andy Sexton, B.B. Shawn, Moe Keale, Tracey Terada, Jake
Shimobokura, and many more are proving that the 'ukulele has,
and always will have its place in the lineup of stringed
Our "little" guitar
has between 4 and 10 strings and is actually big on tone and
sweet in sound. It can be used as a solo instrument, or
accompaniment to most any music, from classical to jazz, and now
country, reggae, and rock.
loved now by the people Hawaii, the 'ukulele was not always
appreciated. It was at first ridiculed as a "hideous Portuguese
instrument" by so-called respectable people who were used to the
traditional stringed instruments.
and traders first brought the "little guitar" to Hawaii, and it
was actually introduced and played publicly for the first time
by a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez, in 1879. The
'ukulele was then called the Braginho because the first one had
been manufactured in the province of Braga, Portugal.
It was also known
as a cavaquinhos, which means "small piece of wood." But the
name "ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay) was adopted, and has
now been accepted today throughout the world. 'Uku in Hawaiian
means flea, thus the nickname "jumping flea."
Fernandez was a
real virtuoso. He had a fantastic ability to play and entertain
fellow passengers on the long voyage from Madeira, Portugal to
Honolulu, Hawaii with the "braginho" of another passenger, who
was unable to play it. The story goes that he could play any
song once he heard it, and his nimble, flying fingers plucked
the melody and strummed the chords.
Quickly the Ali'i
(the Hawaiian Royalty) including King Kalakaua, Queeen Emma, and
the future queen, Liliuokalani (all themselves accomplished
musicians) commanded performances, and in no time all Hawaiians
were in love with this new musical instrument.
By the early 1900's
anyone with the skill to manufacture found an open market.
Hawaii's first 'ukulele maker was a furniture maker who scrapped
his furniture business to produce 'ukuleles exclusively. At that
time an 'ukulele sold for about $5.00, and many were actually
well made, and sounded good.
The 'ukulele craze
caught on, business boomed, and eventually the U.S. mainland
manufacturers began mass production. Consequently, Hawaii's
builders began losing money. Mainland companies cashed in on the
advertisements long used in Hawaii, linking the 'ukulele with
luaus, moonlit nights, and the romance of the islands. When the
chairman of the Hawaiian Promotion Committee wrote a note of
protest to a music store in San Francisco, California, a nasty
letter came back saying that Hawaii shouldn't complain, because
"the mainland companies were turning out better 'ukuleles".
that time, the Honolulu Ad Club patented the 'ukulele, making it
Hawaii's very own. During World War I there was a booming
'ukulele business, but by the end of the 1920's the craze was
Hawaiian manufacturers gave up; however today many new builders
in Hawaii have emerged, producing the finest 'ukuleles ever
made. Although 'ukuleles are again built around the world,
Hawaii can still say that the 'ukulele is its "own".
Many woods are used
in the construction of the 'ukulele; however, the most common
and most revered is the beautiful Koa tree. Other excellent
woods used are Mahogany, Mango, Kamani, Milo, Kulawood (Gold
Shower Tree), and top woods such as Spruce, Cedar, and Sequoia
Redwood. Sizes range from the small Soprano (in Hawaii it is
called Standard), the Concert, Tenor, and Baritone, and even the
recent Solid Body Cutaway, all with a variety of string
combinations including 4, 6, 8, and even 10 for the steel string
Normally plain and
wound nylon strings are used, but some builders use steel
strings. Yes, the resurgence of the 'ukulele is real, and it
seems this time, it's here to stay. Entire clubs and museums
have been organized. Stores now are devoted exclusively to the
'ukulele, and annual 'Ukulele Festivals are celebrated in the
San Francisco area and of course, Honolulu.
So, in a world of
stress and sorrow, our littlest "baby" guitar, the 'ukulele,
will warm your heart and make you smile.
Kitakis Ko'olau Guitar and 'Ukulele Company Kaneohe, Hawaii