Instruments #13: Ukulele

“It produces a characteristic sound that immediately takes us to tropical environments. The ukulele was born in Hawaii but has its roots in Western Europe.

The ukulele is a four-stringed musical instrument made from wood that resembles a small classical guitar.

English speakers pronounce it as “you-ka-ley-ley” but, in fact, the spelling of the word is an anglicized version of the original Hawaiian pronunciation “ju-ke-lei-li.”

The father and mother of the ukulele are two musical instruments from Portugal – the cavaquinho and the machete, also known as braguinha. They were developed in Braga, a city located in the north of the country.

The history of the ukulele dates back to the late 19th-century. In 1879, Portuguese immigrants from Madeira decided to leave their home island in search of a better life, and well-paid jobs. Around 25,000 people found work in the Hawaiian archipelago, also known as Sandwich Islands.

In their luggage, they carried the machete, which immediately conquered the hearts and ears of the local population.

The Portuguese started working in Hawaii’s sugar plantations, but soon they were opening their own woodworking shops where musical instruments and furniture were sold side by side.

The European immigrants were excellent guitar players, and they quickly gained the appreciation of the local community and the royal family.

In less than two decades, the ukulele saw the light of day. It was a natural Hawaiian adaptation of several four and five-string instruments developed in Portugal.

Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo are often considered pioneers of the ukulele.

The popularity of the instrument grew in the first decades of the 20th-century when Mainland American tourists discovered the exotism of the Hawaiian archipelago.

So, what does ukulele mean? Interestingly, ukulele means “jumping flea.” The name was given because of its small size, and vibrant, cheerful, and exuberant sound.”


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