The history of the ukulele can be traced back to Portugal’s Madeira Islands, where its ancestors were small guitar-like instruments called machete, braguinha and cavaquinho.
When Portuguese settlers arrived in Hawaii, they missed their beloved machete and other instruments from home. So they opened shops in Honolulu to craft replicas of this small four-stringed instrument.
The ukulele has become iconic with Hawaii and its culture. But its roots lie much further back than you might think!
The origin of the ukulele can be traced back to Madeira, Portugal. At that time, Madeira had a bustling port city and an extensive timber and furniture manufacturing industry. Local musicians would entertain passengers on board ships with four-string instruments similar to machetes or braguinhas – similar in appearance but more powerful!
In 1879, a group of Portuguese immigrants arrived on the Hawaiian Islands and quickly made themselves known with their new instrument: machetes. Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo were three woodworkers from Madeira who came to work on a sugar plantation. Soon they realized they could make more money as cabinet makers instead of field laborers by creating machetes and other stringed instruments popular throughout the region.
These Portuguese settlers were the earliest known ukulele makers and brought this instrument to Hawaii. Inspired by their Portuguese machete, but also other small string instruments like cavaquinho and timple, these Portuguese men created an instrument unlike any other in history.
When the ukulele was introduced in Hawaii, it quickly gained popularity and started appearing in all types of Hawaiian music. This was partly because it was easy to learn how to play and had an inviting sound. Plus, its price point made it affordable for anyone to purchase; before long, ukuleles had spread throughout Hawaii as well as throughout America.
It has since become a common sight at weddings, festivals and other festive events in Hawaii. Not only does it bring people together but it is an incredibly versatile instrument that can be played in any style from blues to country to Hawaiian music.
The ukulele was traditionally made from highly figured koa wood with an attractive pattern. After carving and sanding, thin metal or wood strips were glued into the grooves to form frets. These allow musicians to alter the tone of their instrument as well as add or subtract notes from its soundscape.
Although the ukulele was initially made from koa, it eventually began being produced in other woods such as rosewood and walnut. These lighter models offered added stability and a better sound than their koa-based predecessors.
In the 1920s, several mainland American companies began producing ukuleles with the goal of creating a mass market for this instrument. This resulted in lower costs and greater durability of the instrument, which attracted many players.
Ukulele songs such as “Over the Rainbow,” “Kaw-Liga,” and “Honolua” have become classic favorites, featuring in movies like The Wizard of Oz where it introduced Aloha music to millions.
The ukulele is one of the most beloved stringed instruments. It can be played by anyone and its distinctive sound appeals to musicians of all ages.