The History Of Ukulele And Its Origin


When was the ukulele invented by the Hawaiians? That was the question I got asked by a friend. She has already been brainwashed that the Hawaiians invented the instrument but was shocked when I answered; “it wasn’t invented from Hawaii.”

She isn’t the first person to ask this question. Others still believe the instrument originated from there. The truth is, the history of the ukulele began from an Island but unfortunately, not the one in Hawaii or the Pacific Ocean.

Madeira, a small mountainous region in the Atlantic southeast of Portugal is the birthplace of the ukulele. The area is approximately 350 mile from the North Africa coast.

Now we already know about the birthplace of the ukulele, let’s find out what brought about the name “Hawaiian” in the origin of the ukulele.

The name “ukulele originates from Hawaii. It was used for a small instrument know as the machete, which as earlier said, developed in Portugal in the Madeira Islands.

This instrument called the machete is a descendent of the early Middle East and European plucked stringed instruments like the lute. The instrument was given different names. It was called Cavaco, machete, and cavaquinho.

In the late 1800’s, Portuguese immigrants were moved to the island to work in a sugar cane field in Hawaiian. They did not only arrive with some working tool, but went with a small instrument which of course is the ukulele we know today.

However, the people believe to have made the first Hawaiian ukulele are Augusto Dias and Manuel Nunes. They arrived in Hawaiian in 1879 from the Madeira Islands in Portugal.

How did the name “Machete” change to the Hawaiian name “ukulele”

There are several legends about this. But the thing is there is no substantial evidence to prove that stories that are backing how the name changed are real.

The “Jumping flea” legend

The ukulele is roughly translated as ‘jumping flea in the English language. There is a story of how the ukulele got the name “jumping flea.”

According to the story, Joao, one of the passengers on the Ravenscrag finally reached the Honolulu port after spending four months at the sea. Overjoyed to have reached his destination, Joao jumped off the ship and started playing Madeira folk songs.

Some of the Hawaiians who saw him play the tiny instrument thought his fast-moving fingers where fleas jumping over the fingerboard. So was how the instrument’s name was born.

Story of Edward Purvis and Royalty

Edward was an assistant Chamberlain to King David Kalakaua. David was Hawaii’s last reigning king and a very influential man in the ukulele early life.

Edwards small stature and energetic personality made them nickname him as ‘ukulele.’ The instrument Edward played for the king also had this name.

There are different translations of the term that was used as evidence. One of them is the explanation of Queen Lili’uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch.

She explained that the term ‘ukulele’ simply means ‘the gift that came here’. the ‘uku’ translates to reward or gift while ‘lele’ translates to come.

King David was fond of the ukulele. His love and passion for the instrument also made it very popular. King Kalakaua was very concerned about developing the Hawaiian culture due to the opposition faced by a missionary group.

He did all he can to revive and reignite people’s interest in the Hawaiian culture. Surprisingly, the king was the one that promoted the ukulele as an instrument made in Hawaiian. He also allowed the instrument to be played at royal functions basically to play Hawaiian music.

The Portuguese Settlers

The three Portuguese settlers; Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and lastly, Jose do Espirito Santo were pioneer ukulele makers. After concluding their work on the Hawaiian sugar plantations, these three went into their woodworking roots in the capital city of Hawaii, Honolulu.

They made most of the ukulele at the time the instrument got very popular under the King David’s patronage.

Introducing the ‘machete’ to Mainland Americans

While the Portuguese settlers travel around the world with the machete, the Hawaiian’s stand on the tiny four-stringed instrument wasn’t introduced to a majority of American audience until the early 1900’s.

The instrument made a lasting impression on mainland Americans, particularly during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was held in 1915 in San Francisco. Hawaiian ukulele players were featured in the exposition. They performed in group settings and also did some individual solo.

The ukulele started becoming more popular in mainland America. Its fans increased tremendous and another era was born. Local mainland musicians started to play traditional Hawaiian music and after some time, they started using the instrument for other genres.

Hawaiian music started to boom in mainland America, it became almost as popular as the major music in the Mainland America.

The Ukulele and The Opportunity for Mainland Instrument Producers

The popularity of the ukulele increased from 1915 to 1920. During this period, instrument manufacturers in Mainland America saw the increase in popularity as an opportunity to make money.

Manufacturers from various America cities including New York started producing the instrument so as to meet the growing demand and make money.

This created a lot of tension between ukulele manufacturers from Hawaii and those in Mainland America. But even though the number of manufacturers increased, there was still a high demand for the instrument.

However, the increased popularity of the instrument led to the production of inexpensive models. This gave many people access as many best ukulele for beginners where being made. The ukulele was adopted by many people as a good beginner instrument due to its small, portable size and a low price.

People with a low budget who could not afford other musical instruments channel their resource to buying the ukulele. a lot of ukuleles were manufactured through the 1920’s. In fact, the ukulele didn’t only become popular during this time but was one of the musical icons of the Jazz-age.


Hawaiians played a major role in increasing the popular of the instrument. Without them, the ukulele wouldn’t have had the recognition it has today. Though the ukulele popularity started diminishing in the late 1930’s but today, the instrument is widely recognized and passion for playing the instrument has also increased tremendously.

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