Ukulele History

Most people think the ‘ukulele (pronounced – ooh-koo-lay-lay) is uniquely Hawaiian and they are partially correct. The name ‘ukulele is Hawaiian. Hawaiian culture includes the ‘ukulele in music and modern dance. Hawaii is where the ‘ukulele became the instrument of today and made so popular it’s now an international phenomenon. The ‘ukulele is Hawaii’s gift to the world. Hawaii’s gift isn’t created until approximately 1879. The instrument’s roots are far deeper and older. The instrument that became the ‘ukulele is called the machete. It arrived in the Islands around the mid-1850s to early 1860s It was brought by Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira. The machete de Braga or braguinha itself was based on the even older, cavaquinho, which is a small classical guitar-like instrument dating back in time to the lute. In Hawaii, the immigrant’s instrument was transformed into the four soft-stringed, uniquely tuned instruments we know as the ukulele.

How the instrument got the name ‘ukulele is lost in time. There are competing stories about the origin of the name though. One set of stories claim that the name is a combination of two Hawaiian words, ” ‘uku” and “lele”. Translated loosely as “’Uku” meaning flea and “lele” meaning to jump or fly. The stories claim the name is derived from seeing the players’ fingers jump up and down the neck of the instrument. Another story is based on less common definitions of the Hawaiian words “uku” meaning a gift and the meaning of “lele” as comes from afar or comes from far away. The second is based on Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last ruling monarch, belief that the instrument was a gift that came to Hawaii. The story of the jumping flea is probably true, but I like the second story better. Either way, the Hawaiian people adapted the instrument and gave us the ‘ukulele