You know – I could write pages and pages on the history of the ukulele but, like the instrument itself, I am going to keep it short and sweet. Here is some key information about it’s origins, along with some notable genres, great players and some further listening and reading suggestions if it takes your interest.
Although it is a common misconception that the ukulele started its life as a Hawaiian instrument, it actually originated in Portugal and was bought to Hawaii in the late 1870’s. A descendant from the ‘Machet’ (or ‘Machetes’) instrument as it was known back in Madeira, the ukulele went through a number of transformations and name changes, including being called a ‘Taropatch Fiddle’, and a ‘Rajao’ before it finally found itself as the ‘Ukulele’.
Ukulele is a Hawaiian word meaning ‘Jumping Flea’ or another translation is ‘the gift that came here’. The ukulele was truly taken to heart by the Hawaiian people and in 1897 Hawaii’s (then ex) Queen Liliuokalani helped introduce the instrument to world, by staging a concert in Washington D.C. The New York Times wrote about the upcoming event, noting she would be playing “songs of her nation” and accompanying herself on the ukulele “a native instrument that looks and sounds like a diminutive guitar”. And so began the popularity of traditional Hawaiian ukulele music.
The first real uke craze, which swept over America and the rest of the world, came when it was show cased at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Fransisco. Through the 1920’s and 30’s the Ukulele was embraced in music halls, theatres, circuses and travelling bands and found itself centre stage and onscreen in a number of different shows and films.
After a bit of a lull, the 1950/60’s brought about a resurgence of ‘Ukulele Cool’ when it was played by a number of rock and pop stars, along with a Tin Pan Alley revival that still hasn’t ceased. Ever since then it has continued to find its place in all sorts of genres…. In folk, country, jazz, blues, rock and classical, as an ensemble instrument and as a virtuosic solo instrument. Check out my list below of recommended artists and composers, spanning the different eras and genres. This list is by no means complete!
These days popularity of the ukulele continues to grow with it overtaking the recorder in schools as the perfect beginner instrument. As well this, 1000’s of adults are coming together – forming groups and creating Ukulele communities all based around the joy of playing this little instrument. I feel super lucky to be a part of spreading the ukulele love through my teaching and performances with TTWU.
Notable traditional Hawaiian performers old and new:
Ernest Kaai (1881-1962)
Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917)
King Kalakaua (1836-1891)
Israel Kamakawiwo’ole “Bruddah Iz” (1959-1997)
Mixed Bag of Music Hall, Blues Country and Ragtime performers:
Roy Smeck (1900-1994)
George Formby (1904-1961)
May Singhi Breen (1891-1970)
Cliff ‘Ukulele Ike’ Edwards
Del Rey (1959-present)
Tessie O Shea (1913-1995)
Arthur Godfrey (1903-1983)
George Harrison (1943-2001)
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (1985-present)
The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra (2005-present)
Current virtuosic players:
Jake Shimabukuro (1976-present)
Daniel Ho (1968-present)
James Hill (1980-present)