5 things you probably didn't know about the ‘ukulele

By intern Brie Adams
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The ‘ukulele, or ukulele, as it's spelled in American English ("uke" for short), is one of the first things that many people associate with Hawai‘i because of its presence in photos of hula girls and sailors relaxing on a paradisiacal beach. The uke was actually considered the national instrument of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi by Queen Lydia Liliʻuokalani in the late 1800s! The uke has played an integral role in presenting Hawai’i to the nation, and by extension the world, as well as defining a genre of music that took the U.S. by storm in the early twentieth century.

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Cabinetmakers to luthiers: re-envisioning an instrument

Ukulele photograph

Though the ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, it is actually a modification of Portuguese instruments called the machete do braçabraguinharajāo, and cavaquinho. The first uke luthiers in Hawaiʻi were men from Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal, who came to Hawaiʻi aboard the SS Ravenscrag in 1879 to work on the sugar plantations. Miguel Nunes, a cabinet maker by trade, opened the first ukulele workshop in Honolulu in 1880 and was later joined by Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, who both went on to open their own workshops as well.

Is it jumping fleas, jumping men, or a traveling gift? 
So you’ve heard the term ukulele but you might also be wondering where did the word "ukulele" come from, right? Well there are three possible explanations. This word would be considered a compound word with the two parts being: ‘uku and lele. ‘Uku with the ‘okina (the punctuation mark that looks like a backwards apostrophe) means flea.Lele means to jump. With this in mind, here are the three theories on where the word for this instrument came from:

  • Jumping Fleas – No, you don't need to give your dog a flea bath now. Some claim that the fingers of ukulele players jump so quickly across the fret board that it looks like fleas jumping.
  • Jumping Men – After a 123-day journey aboard the SS Ravenscrag, a musician burst into song and dance. His jumpy dance reminded people of leaping fleas.
  • Gift from a Distance – Queen Lili‘uokalani used a more poetic version of the term uku and interpreted it as "gift." According to notable uke historian Jim Beloff, her meaning translates to "a gift that came from afar;" referencing the journey that the Portuguese and their instruments had to make to arrive on Hawaiian shores.


Everybody's doing it!
Photograph of building with crowds
Though the ukulele had been displayed and played at different expositions beginning in the late 1800s, it was not until the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco that the ukulele gained international prominence. The Hawaiian Pavilion featured George E. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet along with several other notable musicians who played Hawaiian songs that would eventually become hits such as Henry Kailimai's On A Beach At Waikiki.
My dog has fleas
Cover of ukulele instruction book featuring a women with an instrument
One of the simplest (and trickiest!) methods of tuning a uke is by strumming one’s thumb down all four strings and singing "My dog has fleas." Now, nobody knows (or claims to know) the origins of this little song, but it's a hard song to forget! This sounds simple enough, right? It actually takes quite a well-trained ear to be able to determine if the uke is in fact tuned correctly. Many professional musicians tend to use a chromatic tuner, but nothing beats spending time singing the easiest song to play!
Kitschy comedy to serious playing
Photography of musician with ukulele

Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Herbert "Tiny Tim" Khaury both popularized the uke in the U.S. during each of their lifetimes through their appreciation for the instrument, but in popular culture the uke was still seen as a comedic prop and the souvenir to get friends and family after a trip to Hawaiʻi (which is still very much an active practice today).

Jake Shimabukuro, an internationally recognized uke virtuoso, has sought to add to the personality of the instrument by emphasizing that it has a broad range as well as can play well within almost any genre. He has worked towards emphasizing that ukes are truly versatile instruments and can provide as lively a performance as any other instrument by playing popular songs such as George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, and other crowd favorites along with his own compositions.

Brie Adams is the 2015 Spring Intern for the Office of Curatorial Affairs. A Native Hawaiian, she is currently pursuing her MA/PhD in Cultural Anthropology.

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