History of the Ukulele
The ukulele was introduced to Hawaiians August 23, 1879. On that date the British ship Ravenscrag docked in Honolulu. The ship carried 423 men, women and children from the Portuguese island of Madeira. The voyage from Madeira had taken 4 months and the passengers were very excited to have finally arrived. Legend has it that on that day the weary travelers celebrated and sang thankful tunes while fellow traveler Joao Fernandes accompanied on his machete. The sound of Joao's machete was an instant hit with the welcoming Hawaiians. Also aboard the Ravenscrag were craftsmen Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espirito. In addition to being a fine craftsman and cabinet maker, Dias was also a great musician like Fernandes. These men would help create the ukulele as we know it.
The Jumping Flea
There are several theories as to how the ukulele got its name. One popular theory tells of an English army officer stationed in Hawaii named Edward Purvis. Purvis was a talented musician and would often entertain the court of Hawaiian King David Kalakaua. Legend states Purvis was given the nickname 'Jumping Flea' by his Hawaiian friends because of his small stature and fast playing. Another theory compares the fingers moving on the fret board to 'jumping fleas'. A more poetic theory came from Queen Lili'uokalani who believed the name came from Hawaiian words uku(gift) and lele(to come or arrive).
The King of the Uke
Hawaiian King David Kalakaua, Hawaii's "Merry Monarch" was an early ukulele enthusiast and played no small role in the widespread acceptance of the ukulele in Hawaii. Kalakaua's siblings, Queen Lili'uakalani, Princess Likelike and Prince Leleiohoku were all songwriters. The King was educated in music, an accomplished pianist, guitarist and accordion player and would also learn the ukulele. According to local legend, the King's Jubilee of 1886 was the first time ukuleles would be used to accompany hula.
The Hawaiian Glee Club toured a few mainland cities in 1901 and brought with them the ukulele, but it wasn't until the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 that the instrument would receive a wide audience in America. The Exposition was in celebration of the completion of the Panama canal and the Hawaiian Building was a popular attraction. Hawaiian performances were said to have been viewed by as many as 17 million.
In the Hawaiian language hapa-haole refers to a person who is half Hawaiian and half Caucasian. In the early 1900s a new style of music was coined Hapa-Haole. This music would mix Hawaiian and English lyrics or popular tunes of the day mixed with traditional Hawaiian lyrics. One of the most well known composers of this style was Henry Kailimai, his song "On the Beach at Waikiki", became a hit and helped to start a ukulele craze.
More recently, the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, otherwise known as "IZ," brought the ukulele into the national spotlight with his heartfelt song "Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World" featured in Hollywood movies such as Meet Joe Black and 50 First Dates. Read more about contemporary Hawaiian music on our music page.