Ukulele History

Between 1878 and 1913, more than 20,000 Portuguese men, women, and children undertook the hazardous voyage from Madeira, the Azores, and mainland Portugal to begin a new life in the Hawaiian Islands.
In 1879, the ‘ukulele arrived in Hawaii. In Portugal, the instrument was called the Braguinha, from Braga. A similar 5-string instrument, the Rajao was converted to a Braguinha, which is what Manuel Nunes brought to Hawaii. But Manuel and his brother Octavio lived on Madeira, an island settled by the Celts of Braga in the early 15th century. Octavio was the most famous luthier in Maderia at the time.
Hawaiians nicknamed the braguinha ‘ukulele (pronounced oo-koo-lay lay).

Although dearly loved now by the people of Hawaii, the ‘ukulele was not always appreciated. It was at first ridiculed as a “hideous Portugese instrument” by so-called “respectable” people who were used to the traditional stringed instruments.

After Portugese sailors and traders first brought the “little guitar” to Hawaii, it was introduced and played publicly for the first time by a Portugese immigrant named Joao Fernandez.
Fernandez was a real virtuoso. He had a fantastic ability to play and entertain fellow passengers on the long voyage from Madeira, Portugal to Honolulu, Hawaii with the “braguinha” of another passenger, who was unable to play it.
The story goes that he could play any song once he heard it, and his nimble, flying fingers plucked the melody and strummed the chords.

Quickly the Ali’i (the Hawaiian Royalty) including King Kalakaua, Queen Emma, and the future queen, Liliuokalani (all themselves accomplished musicians) commanded performances, and in no time all Hawaiians were in love with this new musical instrument.

By the early 1900’s anyone with the skill to manufacture found an open market. Hawaii’s first ‘ukulele maker was a furniture maker who scrapped his furniture business to produce ‘ukuleles exclusively.

At that time an ‘ukulele sold for about $5.00, and many were actually well made, and sounded good!

The ‘ukulele craze caught on, business boomed, and eventually the U.S. mainland manufacturers began mass production. Consequently, Hawaii’s builders began losing money. Mainland companies cashed in on the advertisements long used in Hawaii, linking the ‘ukulele with luaus, moonlit nights, and the romance of the islands. When the chairman of the Hawaiian Promoton Committee wrote a note of protest to a music store in San Francisco, California, a nasty letter came back saying that Hawaii shouldn’t complain, because “the mainland companies were turning out better ‘ukuleles”.
Consequently, at that time, the Honolulu Ad Club patented the ‘ukulele, making it Hawaii’s very own. During World War I there was a booming ‘ukulele business, but by the end of the 1920’s the craze was dying off.
Gradually, most Hawaiian manufacturers gave up. However today many new builders in Hawaii have emerged, producing the finest ‘ukuleles ever made. Although ‘ukuleles are again built around the world, Hawaii can still say that the ‘ukulele is its “own”.
Many woods are used in the construction of the ‘ukulele; however, the most common and most revered is the beautiful Koa tree. Other excellent woods used are Mahogany, Mango, Kamani, Milo, Kulawood (Gold Shower Tree), and top woods such as Spruce, Cedar, and Sequoia Redwood. Sizes range from the small Soprano (in Hawaii it is called Standard), the Concert, Tenor, and Baritone, and even the recent Solid Body Cutaway, all with a variety of string combinations including 4, 6, 8, and even 10 for the steel string Tiple.
Normally plain and wound nylon strings are used, but some builders use steel strings. Yes, the resurgence of the ‘ukulele is real, and it seems this time, it’s here to stay. Entire clubs and museums have been organized. Stores are now devoted exclusively to the ‘ukulele, and besides the famous annual Honolulu ‘Ukulele Festival, many more ‘Ukulele Festivals are celebrated throughout the world.

So, in a world of stress and sorrow, our littlest “baby” guitar, the ‘ukulele, will warm your heart and make you smile.

John Kitakis,
Ko’olau Guitar and ‘Ukulele Company

Special thanks to Dan Scanlan (aka Cool Hand Uke) for historical research.