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Hawaii and the Ukulele

Updated on August 22, 2016
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Ruth Kongaika was born in the Rocky Mountains and has lived most of her life in the South Pacific. She travels, gardens and writes.

Gourd rattle called uliuli in Hawaiian
Gourd rattle called uliuli in Hawaiian | Source

The ukulele is usually associated with Hawaiian music. But, before the haole (white) missionaries came to Hawaii, the Hawaiians knew very little about melody. They performed solo chants without any accompaniment for ceremonies and rituals with a monotone voice. Hawaiians also used pahu (drums), double gourds (ipu heke), or uliuli (gourd rattles), and also slapped their hands on their chests (pai umauma) to accompany dancers. The ukulele came much later.

Painted ukulele
Painted ukulele | Source
King David Kalakaua
King David Kalakaua
Hawaiian children playing the ukulele
Hawaiian children playing the ukulele

It was not until the later part of the nineteenth century that the ukulele was introduced to Hawaii. It was the Portuguese immigrants that brought a four-stringed instrument called the cavaquinho or braga . These instruments were small enough to fit in a saddlebag.

The Hawaiians liked this little Portuguese instrument, adapted it, and gave it a new name. Ukulele in Hawaiian means jumping flea , uku meaning flea and lele meaning jumping.The instrument was given this name because of how swiftly their fingers moved on the strings.

King David Kalakaua played a big role in how popular the ukulele became in Hawaiian music. He was a huge patron of the arts, and supported the use of this instrument at royal gatherings and performances throughout Hawaii..

In Hawaii, the new ukuleles were made out of native Hawaiian koa wood instead of the traditional pine. Troupes of Hawaiian singers with their ukuleles performed throughout the mainland America, and it sparked a mania for the little instrument. Now even school children are given lessons as part of their music curriculum.

Ukuleles have been used by many Hawaiian musicians, including one of my favorite, Bruddah Iz. No matter his extra huge size, he loved the small ukulele. In fact, other Hawaiians loved the ukulele also. Here is a link to some of the more well-known ukulele artists:

Bruddah Iz - Israel Kamakawiwo'ole

Jake Shimabukuro - a popular ukulele virtuoso  in Hawaii.
Jake Shimabukuro - a popular ukulele virtuoso in Hawaii. | Source

I attended a concert given by Jake Shimabukuro. He is simply amazing, and he can really make the little ukulele sing. I think you will agree once you see his video below. Amazing what he can do with just four strings! He got a standing ovation at the end of his concert, including myself.

Now Jake Shimabukuro tours all over, so if you are lucky enough to be in a town where he is playing, check him out. His schedule is posted on this site:

There are actually four sizes of ukulele:

  • Soprano
  • Concert
  • Tenor
  • Baritone

The volume and tone varies according to the construction and size of the instrument.

I have seen amps connected to the ukulele. I have even witnessed one ukulele player that could play the ukulele behind his back, over his head and even pluck the strings with his teeth.

You Gotta see this! Go Sione!!

My husband can play the ukulele and also two of my sons. I must say that it has been part of our life and am grateful to the Portuguese who shared their little cavaquinho with the Hawaiians.


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