Discover the surprising history of the ukulele

A rhythmic sound coming from a compact 4-string guitar, a refreshing drink, and a white sand beach landscape is something we could easily imagine, but is the Ukulele actually originally from Hawaii? We invite you to know the history of this instrument.


As is often the case with many instruments, the place of origin is not precisely the one in which it has the greatest influence and where it is considered most important. The history of the ukulele is very peculiar, and the way it has adapted to the tradition of the Hawaiian archipelago is what makes this instrument today recognized throughout the world as a typical sound of the paradise islands.


Origins and evolution

To go back to the origin of the ukulele, we have to go back in time around 140 years, since it was the migration of workers from Portugal, specifically from the Azores and Madeira that began in 1877, which caused this instrument to reach the shores of Hawaii. . Since at this time the number of people who arrived in this archipelago was remarkable, adding around 10,000 towards the middle of the 1880s. As expected, the newcomers from Portugal gathered to preserve their traditions, as well as their music, While the original inhabitants of Hawaii were curiously observing both their way of eating and making music, something that must have interested them a lot, because at this time, the instruments that were part of the Hawaiian tradition were predominantly percussion.

Originally known as cavaquinho or machete, this instrument consists of 4 strings or gut strings, which are placed on an acoustic box similar to that of a guitar, since it has evolved from it, but compared to its predecessor this consists of a acoustic box of smaller proportions and its musical scale is oriented to interpret higher sounds.

However, the instrument began its transformation by the inhabitants of Hawaii, changing not only its appearance, where the decorative motifs are altered, but also making a change in its sound and configuration of the strings.

Speaking a little more about the sound, we can say that one of the peculiarities that make the ukulele tuning different in relation to the cavaquinho is that while in the latter the strings go from high to low, in the ukulele the fourth string and first string are higher than the central ones.




Hawaiian name

Something that we can attribute to the native people of Hawaii is the name by which we currently know the instrument, since the word Ukulele comes from “uku” which means flea and “lele” which is used to express the concept of jumping. Many agree with this term and its meaning because they consider that the rapid movement of the fingers when touching the strings can be similar to that of these insects when they jump. Although other scholars have doubts as to whether the name has something to do with the jumping insect, since they are inclined by the theory that Queen Lili’uokalani who rué regent in Hawaii in 1881 mentions this word with a sense that is interpreted as “The gift that came to us”, something that doesn’t sound strange at all, after understanding that it is an instrument that comes from another place.


First impressions in Hawaii

Perhaps the success of the acceptance of this instrument in the new country had a lot to do with the interpretive ability of two musicians Augusto Díaz and José do Espírito Santo, since there are historical bases that can be read in Hawaiian gazettes that mention both characters delighting by the nights to the native inhabitants, in street concerts with their strange instruments, which are described as something similar to a guitar or a banjo. 

Also noteworthy are the names of Augusto Dias, João Fernandes, José do Espirito Santo and Manuel Nunes who arrived at the port of Honolulu on August 23, 1879, it is said that João played a song, something that caused great impact among the inhabitants, but his colleagues, perhaps did the most important work, since their knowledge included training as lute makers, capable of making instruments, which allowed the Ukulele as we know it now to be created.




A great concert, fit for royalty

It is claimed that in large part the influence that led to the ukulele being a successful instrument among the Hawaiian community is due to its being related to royalty, with King David Kalākaua among its most important players. The last Hawaiian monarch Queen Lili’uokalani is also known to be a songwriter and ukulele player. 

Another example of the predilection that the royal family showed towards the instrument is that in 1889 a concert was offered on the British yacht Nyanza that had Princess Victoria Kaiulani among its main assistants. This event is considered as the official presentation of the instrument.

From this moment and being linked to the history of the country, the ukulele became part of the identity of the people, with various interpreters, taking it as an important symbol of the Hawaiian tradition. In addition, several names are distinguished worldwide such as Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole or the Ka’au Crater Boys, who through their compositions gave greater importance to the sound of the ukulele.


The ukulele sets trends

Something that we cannot fail to notice is that this instrument has managed to become a trend, since many of them have plans to become ukulele players in the short term. This is largely influenced by the growing number of actors like The Rock or Taylor Swift and other famous figures performing songs with this particular instrument. 

That is why a priority project among instrument brands is to design options from acoustic, electroacoustic and even interactive models that facilitate learning, in order to reach the different types of users who seek to acquire this instrument. So if you are looking for the best value for money ukulele , you will not have to try too hard, because the options are very varied and you can find ukulele versions from affordable to professional, which can meet the expectations of the most demanding musicians.


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