Although the ukulele has long been regarded as uniquely Hawaiian, the instrument could be considered a creative adaptation and redesign of the Portuguese machete de braga, commonly referred to as the machete. The machete was introduced to Hawaii about 125 years ago by Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira who came to work in the sugar cane fields. When the ship Ravenscrag docked in Honolulu in August 1879, the immigrants celebrated their safe arrival with Portuguese folksongs accompanied on the little four-stringed machete—the instrument that was known in Madeira. It was an immediate sensation. Less than two weeks later, the Hawaiian Gazette reported 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."
The ship Ravenscrag brought from Madeira not only laborers for sugar plantations but also three talented cabinetmakers—Augusto Dias (1842-1915), Manuel Nunes (1843-1922), and Jose do Espirito Santo (1850-1905), who were to play key roles in popularizing the little machete. Responding to a growing local interest in this small guitar-like instrument, Dias, Nunes, and Santo all opened their own instrument shops in Honolulu by 1886.
The machete – renamed ukulele in the Hawaiian language, meaning, literally, "jumping flea" – rose quickly to popularity among the native population and became regarded as Hawaii's national instrument. The key reason for this immediate acceptance was the patronage of Hawaii's royal family, most notably King David Kalakaua (1836-1891), an accomplished musician and composer who became an avid ukulele player. Dias had a long-standing relationship with King Kalakaua—he regularly performed at Iolani Palace, demonstrating his unique Portuguese style of playing melody and accompaniment, and even taught the king to build his own ukuleles.
Apart from royal patronage, the creative redesign of the machete into the easier-to-play ukulele—with its endemic koa-wood construction and a slightly different tuning—helped the popularity of this portable instrument. Because of the use of Hawaii's native koa wood, which had been long associated with royalty on the islands, the ukulele became a symbol of aloha aina, or love of the land, and of support for Hawaiian sovereignty during that era of great political turmoil, when the monarchy was struggling to preserve Hawaiian independence.
Where did it come from?
N. B. The following quotations isolate and heighten the contradictory views regarding the history and development of the ukulele. Much of the information is merely the opinion or speculation of the respective author or authors; much that is stated as fact is, in fact, inaccurate.
ortuguese settlers brought the small, four-stringed instrument which we call the ‘ukulele to Hawaii just over one hundred years ago. The ‘ukulele is a member of the guitar family of musical instruments, and underwent many years of evolutionary development as a product of Portuguese folk culture.
“The modern ‘ukulele is a close relative of the cavaquinho of mainland Portugal, and the braguinha of the Portuguese islands of Madeira. Madeira was the homeland of the first large group of Portuguese settlers in Hawaii.
“The first large contingent of Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii aboard the sailing ship Priscilla in September, 1878. It is not known whether any of the 120 passengers aboard the Priscilla brought a braguinha to Hawaii.
“Within a year of the arrival of the Priscilla, a second major contingent of Portuguese settlers arrived in Hawaii aboard the bark Ravenscrag. Historians are certain that at least one braguinha was present aboard the Ravenscrag when she sailed into Honolulu harbor on August 23, 1879.
“Aboard the Ravenscrag were five men who are closely identified with the ‘ukulele in Hawaii. Augusto Dias, Jose do Espirito Santo and Manuel Nunes were craftsmen able to build fine musical instruments by hand. Joao Luiz Correa and Joao Fernandes were musicians who knew how to play a number of stringed instruments, including the braguinha.
“Oral tradition within the Nunes family maintains that Manuel Nunes opened a shop for the manufacture and sale of ‘ukuleles almost immediately following the arrival of the Ravenscrag. The first written evidence of the presence of ‘ukulele shops in Honolulu is the 1884 City Directory, which shows that Nunes and Dias had each opened their own shops by 1884. A later edition of the City Directory confirms that Jose do Espirito Santo had joined Nunes and Dias in the independent manufacture and sale of ‘ukuleles by 1888.
“The braguinha was not the only instrument that the Portuguese brought to Hawaii; they brought the rajao as well. The rajao, somewhat larger than the ‘ukulele, is a five-stringed instrument with a lower tone than the ‘ukulele. It became known as the ‘taro patch fiddle’ because field workers enjoyed carrying the instrument to the fields and playing it during work breaks.” – John Henry Felix, Leslie Nunes and Peter F. Senecal, The Ukulele: A Portuguese Gift to Hawaii, Published by the Authors, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1980
he present-day ukulele was adapted from the Portuguese instrument called the braguinha, which was introduced into Hawai’i in 1878 by the first group of Portuguese immigrants. Oddly enough, no member of the group was able to play it, not even its owner, one Joao de Freitas. It was not until the arrival of the second boatload of immigrants on August 22, 1879, that ukulele history really began, for on board the Ravenscraig that docked in Honolulu Harbor were not only the braguinha but musicians who could play it and craftsmen who could make it.” – George S. Kanahele, editor, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1979
“Shortly after the ukulele was first made by Martin (1916), they made the taro-patch. This instrument had 8 strings, arranged in four pairs. It, like its sister the ukulele, used gut strings. The taro-patch was actually the ancestor of the ukulele in Hawaii. It is said to have been derived from a guitar-like instrument brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese sailors. This is not well documented and cannot be quoted as fact.” – Mike Longworth, Martin Guitars: A History, Omnibus Press, London, U.K., 1975
“(The ukulele) was first produced in Hawaii, sometime between 1877 and 1879, by a Portuguese cabinet maker, Michael Nunez, who patterned it after a small Portuguese guitar.” – May Singhi Breen, New Ukulele Method, Robbins Music Corporation, New York, New York, 1950
“(The ukulele is) an Hawaiian instrumental adaptation of the Portuguese small guitar which was called the ‘Taro Patch’.”- Howard K. Morris, The S.S. Lurline Conservatory of Hawaiian Music, Matson Navigation Co., San Francisco, California, 1937
P TO the time of its introduction by the Portuguese, the only stringed instrument which the Hawaiians had known as a people was the primitive musical bow, the ukeke (u-ké-ké).
“The truth of the statement that the Portuguese brought the instrument later known in these islands as the ukulele has been doubted by some, who are under the impression that although it was first made by the Portuguese, its form was not invented until after their arrival, and was the result of a desire for a more convenient size of instrument, which would also be cheaper to make and would on that account sell more readily.
“This doubt led to further investigation and to the seeking out of an old Portuguese gentleman, Mr. J.A. Gonsalves, known to have come to Honolulu from Madeira among the first Portuguese immigrants. He was twenty years old at the time of his arrival (1879). On the same sailing vessel with him were three men, Augusto Diaz, Z. Santos, and Manuel Nunes, partners in the old home in the business of making musical instruments. They were the first guitar makers in the islands. That all three instruments were made and played in Portugal is proved by the fact that the largest, the guitar, was there called the viola. It had six strings, like the present Hawaiian guitar. The taro patch fiddle, called rajao in its original home had five strings, as it has in Hawaii, while the ukulele, with four strings, had its Portuguese representative in the braga, one of which Mr. Gonsalves brought with him when he emigrated. These statements have been corrobarated by Mr. George Nunes, son of Manuel Nunes, who is now dead, as are also Mr. Santos and Mr. Dias.” – Helen Roberts, Ancient Hawaiian Music, Bulletin 29, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawaii 1926
“The ukulele is a miniature guitar. (It) evolved from the taro patch.” – Frank Littig, Littig’s New Harmony Self Instructor Chords for Ukulele, Banjuke or Taro Patch Fiddle, Chart Music Publishing House, Chicago, Illinois, 1924
“This little instrument originated among the natives of Hawaii.” – E.N. Guckert, The Original Guckert’s Chords for the Ukulele, Lyon & Healy, Chicago, Illinois, 1917
S TO the string instrument (ukulele), the native Hawaiian originally had what was called ‘UKEKE’ and that was just an ordinary piece of curved wood with two gut strings stretched tightly across with no set tuning in particular. There is hardly any tone on one of these instuments, just simply a monotonous weird sound very much like that of a Jews Harp. But there was one thing however that an expert was capable of doing, and that was to formulate words by the movements of the mouth, lips, and throat. It can be safely said that the UKEKE was the first of a series of stringed instruments which the ingenuity of the younger generation of Hawaiians have modulated to what is popularly known as the UKULELE.” – Ernest K. Kaai, The Ukulele and How its [sic] Played, Hawaiian News Co., Ltd., Honolulu, Hawaii, 1916
“The Ukulele is a native Hawaiian instrument made of Koa Wood.” – George Kia, Self Instructor for the Ukulele and Taro-patch Fiddle, R.W. Heffelfinger, Los Angeles, California, 1914
“The ukulele, the typical native Hawaiian instrument of diminutive guitar shape…was first produced in Hawaii about the year 1879 and sprung into such favor that the old Taro-patch fiddle was immediately dethroned in favor of its smaller brother.” – N.B. Bailey, A Practical Method for Self Instruction on the Ukulele, Sherman, Clay & Co., San Francisco, California, 1914
“The ukulele was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands by Mr. M. Nunes in 1879 A.D.” – A.A. Santos & Angeline F. Nunes, Original Method and Self Instructor on the Ukulele, Santos-Nunes Studios, Honolulu, Hawaii, ca. 1914
he instruments of the old Hawaiians have succumbed to the onward march of civilization, and today they are very little used in the cities, although in country districts one may often hear their weird sounds. The guitar, the banjo, the mandolin, the ukulele (modification of a Portuguese fiddle), and the flute, have all taken their place and have come to stay.” – Foreword (dated August 19, 1902), Songs of Hawaii, A.R. Cunha, arranger, Bergstrom Music Co., Honolulu, Hawaiian Territory 1902
“Hawaiians do not seem to take much, nor readily, to our instruments; either piano, or wind and string. But they are exceptionally fond of the guitar, and they play it as a solo instrument, with a tenderness, a softness which speaks well for the delicacy of their feelings. They also extensively use the guitar to accompany their modern meles and even their hulas: of late they have taken to the banjo and to that hideous small Portuguese instrument now called “taro-patch fiddle.” — Augustus Marques, “Music in Hawaii Nei,” Hawaiian Almanac and Annual, 1886
e feel certain that these ‘Symphonic Ukulele Arrangements’ will do much to dispel the prejudice that the ukulele is good only for the strumming of a few simple chords and will place it where it justly belongs: in the front rank of legitimate musical instruments worthy of serious study.” – Preface, Ray Canfield’s Symphonic Ukulele Arrangements, Vol. I, Villa Moret, Inc., San Francisco, California, 1927
“A few chords strummed on a ukulele, enough to please a few others beside yourself, does more good in this world than the combined efforts of all the financiers and politicians that ever lived.” – Frank Littig, Littig’s New Harmony Self Instructor Chords for Ukulele, Banjuke or Taro Patch Fiddle, Chart Music Publishing House, Chicago, Illinois, 1924
“M. NUNES & SONS Inventor of the UKULELE and Taro Patch Fiddles in Honolulu in 1879” – M. Nunes & Sons ukulele label, ca. 1910
“The ukulele is not an invention but rather a creation.” – Ernest K. Kaai, The Ukulele and How its [sic] Played, Hawaiian News Co., Ltd., Honolulu, Hawaii, 1916
“The tone of the ukulele resembles very much that of the harp.” – Major Kealakai, Self Instructor for the Ukulele and Taro-Patch Fiddle, Southern California Music Co., Los Angeles, California, 1912-1914
ow everybody’s got a crazy notion of their own. Some like to mix up with a crowd, some like to be alone. It’s no one elses’ business as far as I can see, but every time that I go out the people stare at me, with me little ukulele in me hand. Of course the people do not understand. Some say why don’t you be a scout, why don’t you read a book? But I get much more pleasure when I’m playing on me uke. Of course I take no notice you can tell, for Mothers’ sound advice will always stand: She said, ‘My Boy, do what I say and you’ll never go astray, if you keep your ukulele in your hand. Yes, Son. Keep your ukulele in your hand.” – George Formby
“Some would call the Ukulele an insignificant instrument, and yet we have all there is necessary to make and cover an accompaniment for the most difficult opera written, the harmony is all there, if one would give it a complete and thorough study.” – Ernest K. Kaai, The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It, Wall, Nichols Co. Ltd., Honolulu, T.H. 1910
“By the proper use of a felt pick, you will be able to produce an effect very similar to a pipe organ.” – Preface, Ray Canfield’s Symphonic Ukulele Arrangements, Vol. I, Villa Moret, Inc., San Francisco, California, 1927
UALITY: You might wonder what really makes the difference in price. Well, the No. 5 at $2.50 is and looks like an ukulele, that’s all we’d care to say about it. The No. 10 at $5.00 is playable and a good ukulele. Those ranging from $7.50 upwards are genuine Hawaiian, made by Hawaiians in the Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiians make them by hand. They use only native Koa wood. They ‘know how.’ You’ll never regret buying a genuine.” – ‘Ukuleles’, sales brochure, Fred C. Meyer & Co., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, ca. 1917
“Superior to the genuine Hawaiian instruments in quality and volume of tone.” – Martin Hawaiian Ukuleles, sales brochure, C.F. Martin & Co., Nazareth, Pennsylvania, 1917