Ukulele: The Little Instrument that Could

Eddie Vedder & His Ukulele

There’s little debate on where or how the ukulele got its start. What’s more interesting is the prolific rise of this tiny, guitar-shaped instrument in today’s modern pop music roster. Follow me on a journey of the ukulele, from an essential component of island culture to a mainland pop icon.

A Brief History
A celebration broke out shortly after 419 Portuguese immigrants arrived in Honolulu on the afternoon of August 23rd, 1879. They traveled over 4 months to work in the sugar cane fields. One of those immigrants, Joao Fernandes, grabbed a traditional guitar-like instrument known as the braguinha and began playing a song. Impressed with the speed of Joao’s fingers, the Hawaiian’s waiting at the dock had to get their hands on one.

And here is where we encounter the first of many stories on how the ukulele got its name. You pick your favorite.
• The Hawaiian’s thought that Joao’s fingers looked like a “jumping flea,” the English translation of ukulele
• Queen Lili’uokalani thought it came from the Hawaiian words, “uku” meaning gift and “lele” meaning come. “The gift that came here.”
• Another legend says the instrument was originally called the ukeke lele, or dancing ukeke. Ukeke is a Hawaiian three stringed instrument. After time, the pronunciation changed to ukulele.
• Others believe the story of an English Army officer named, Edward Purvis, who was adept at playing the braguinha. He was small, sprightly man, who would dance around while playing the instrument. The much larger Hawaiians would call him ukulele, “the jumping flea.”

Hawaiian’s Adopt an Instrument
The ukulele was an instant hit with Hawaiians. So much so, that in a matter of a few short years’ instrument shops were popping up all over the island selling and repairing uke’s. Most early ukuleles were built by the original Portuguese immigrants who landed in Honolulu.

The original beach boys, the young men who hung out the beaches of Hawaii, were responsible for popularizing the instrument throughout the 1920’s and 30’s. At a time when Waikiki was a far off dream for most, the beach boys were entertaining guests, including movie stars, with the strumming of their ukuleles.

One of the most famous beach boys, Chick Daniels, serenaded guests for over 50 years at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. He would stand, where else, but on the beach in front of the hotel. Then continue to play long into the night with his band, the Royal Hawaiians.

Fast Forward
Thanks in part to our “connected” world, musical styles and trends spread like wild fire. Genres melt together like peanut butter and chocolate and lines between musical ideas blur. There’s no greater example then the current pop/country scene. More people than ever are listening to “country” music. This is not your grandpa’s country music. This is a blend of pop infused melodies with traditional country instruments. Email me for my opinion of this music.

A similar parallel can be drawn with the introduction of the ukulele into current pop music. It’s so prevalent that it no longer feels obscure. Artists now have a new medium in which to work – adding depth and variety to their music.

Hey Soul Sister
Train’s hit song, Hey Soul Sister, spent 22 weeks at number 1 in the adult contemporary chart and was the band’s first single to make the charts in five years. Some attribute the success of the song to the mighty ukulele. How can such a small instrument become such an integral part of a song’s composition? Examples abound.

Just check out a few more songs and artists who have successfully introduced the ukulele into their songwriting.
• Jason Mraz – I’m Yours
• Ingrid Michaelson – You and I
• Noah and the Whale – 5 Years Time
• Jack Johnson – Breakdown
• Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs (album)

Want to learn to play the ukulele? Sonifly* has a wide array of ukulele sheet music.  Here are my top 5 ukulele lesson and songbooks:

1. Jason Mraz: Strum & Sing
2. The Ukulele Method: Book 1
3. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Rock Hits for Ukulele
4. Easy Ukulele Play-Along: Classic Rock for Ukulele
5. Chart Hits Ukulele Play-Along Vol. 8

What is your favorite song that features a ukulele?

*Sonifly has become Band Merch Now