Ukulele History: The History Of The Ukulele In Hawaii

Mahalo ukulele by tawalker, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License by  tawalker

The ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument that resembles a miniature guitar. Though it might look like a guitar it is quite different from a guitar. It has four strings, instead of six strings like a guitar and it is tuned differently. It usually is tuned to GCEA, while a guitar is tuned to EADGBE. It is also played differently. Though a few ukulele players will use a pick like most guitar players use, traditionally, an ukulele is played with the fingers alone.

This instrument was first introduced to Hawaii back in 1879. It is based on two Portuguese instruments called the cavaquinho and the rajão, which were brought to Hawaii by the early Portuguese immigrants, who came here to work on the sugar plantations.

Edward Purvis, the vice-chamberlain of King Kalakaua, heard someone playing the cavaquinho and decided to learn how to play it. Purvis was a small and very energetic man. He played the cavaquinho with a lot of energy and because of this; the Hawaiians gave him the nickname of “Ukulele”, which means jumping flea. He received this nickname because his energetic playing style and small stature reminded them of a jumping flea.

Later, three cabinet makers from the Portuguese region of Madeira, built the first ukulele, modeling it upon the rajão and cavaquinho, which Purvis played so well. Someone decided to apply Purvis’s nickname to this new instrument and this is how the ukulele got its name. The name of this instrument is doubly apt, because many say that the fingers of an ukulele player resemble jumping fleas, especially when they are playing a fast song.

From its humble beginnings back in 1879, in Hawaii, the ukulele has become a popular instrument. In 1920, it first became popular in the U.S. during the Jazz age. And in the 1990s its popularity has begun to climb again through musicians like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Jake Shimabukuro and even former Beatle, George Harrison.

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