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  • Ukulele History

    The Ukulele is commonly associated with music from Hawaii where the name roughly translates as "jumping flea," perhaps because of the movement of the player's fingers. Legend attributes it to the nickname of the Englishman Edward William Purvis, one of King Kalākaua's officers, because of his small size, fidgety manner, and playing expertise. According to Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here,” from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).
    Developed in the 1880s, the ukulele is based on several small, guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin, the machete, the Cavaquinho and the Rajão, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde. Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers. Two weeks after they disembarked from the SS Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that "Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts."
    One of the most important factors in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was the ardent support and promotion of the instrument by King Kalākaua. A patron of the arts, he incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.
    In 1915, the ukulele hit the mainland U.S.A with its first appearance at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. It was a huge hit and a ukulele fever hit the mainland. Vaudeville quickly embraced this entertaining marvel and took it to new places. During this time the banjo-uke or banjolele made its appearance. It had the ability to carry well in a large noisy concert hall before amplification. In the 1920's numerous musical companies began making ukuleles including Martin, Regal, Harmony and Gibson.
    The 1940's and 1950's brought the second ukulele craze with servicemen from WW2 returning home with ukuleles. Arthur Godfrey, George Formby, Roy Smeck, Ukulele Ike and others entertained the nation. Millions of ukuleles were produced and sold. In 1931 Harmony ukuleles of Chicago alone sold 500,000 ukuleles. With the radical changes of music and culture in the 60's and 70's the ukulele was forgotten by many.
    In the 1960s, educator J. Chalmers Doane dramatically changed school music programs across Canada, using the ukulele as an inexpensive and practical teaching instrument to foster musical literacy in the classroom. 50,000 schoolchildren and adults learned ukulele through the Doane program at its peak. Today, a revised program created by James Hill and J. Chalmers Doane continues to be a staple of music education in Canada.
    Today we are seeing a new era in ukes. Inspiration from greats like Israel Kamakawio'ole, Jake Shimabukuro, Taimane, James Hill, Manitoba Hal, Ralph Shaw and others are fueling the fire of the current ukulele revolution.
    YouTube and other places on the web have created a new outlet for ukulele fanatics everywhere. Websites and forums such as UkuleleUnderground.com connect uke players worldwide. As never before people are picking up a ukulele and playing rock, reggae, blues, bluegrass and punk. This unassuming instrument can pack a solid punch and often has a way of getting into your heart.

     

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