A Brief History of the Ukulele: From Hawaii to Global Popularity

Ukulele, a small and pretty stringed instrument has captured the heart of people all over the world.

Created in Portugal and evolved in Hawaii, this instrument has undergone a remarkable journey from the late 19th century to today.

During this journey, it has been introduced to the rest of the region in the world and adopted as a versatile musical instrument in the hands.

In this blog post, I will take you to the fascinating history of the Ukulele from its origin to its journey to become a global musical instrument.

So, without further ado let’s find out its history.

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The Fascinating Journey of the Ukulele

Journey of the Ukulele
Source: Wikipedia

Ukulele, a 4 stringed instrument originated in Portugal. It is Developed by 3 Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias in the 1880s.

  • For a detailed guide on Ukulele, you should read this guide “Ukulele 101.

Soon they migrated to Hawaii and started playing in the night parties and clubs in Hawaii. Soon this pretty instrument became famous in the Hawaiian region.

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The small size and pretty sound made it soon become a staple of local music in Hawaii.

But this instrument got huge popularity in Hawaii when King Kalākaua invited the immigrants to his court to perform. He loved that instrument and from there Ukulele got famous in Hawaii.

Ukulele was originally known as machete or braguinha but the name “Ukulele” came from the “jumping flea” in the local Hawaiian language. Because when a player strum on the strings the fingers feels like jumping flea.

Soon it became a symbol of Hawaiian culture.

Its popularity continued throughout the 20th century and it started using popular music genres like jazz, country, and rock and roll. In the 1920s and 30s, the instrument was frequently used in jazz music.

But, the biggest boost in its popularity came in the mid-20th century when Elvis Presley the King of Rock and Roll played this instrument in his 1961 film Blue Hawaii.

Today, the new generation of musicians have embraced its sound and versatility to complement any genre of music.

Artists like Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Jake Shimabukuro, and Boy With Uke brought this instrument to new global audiences.

So, with a fascinating history, Ukulele also has a bright future.

The Origins of the Ukulele: The Early Days in Hawaii

The Origins of the Ukulele

When you hold your Ukulele in your hands, strum its 4 strings, and enjoy its pretty country sound, doesn’t it reflect its fascinating history to you?

For me, definitely. That’s why I googled its history and what I got the origins can be traced back to Hawaii in the late 19th century.

According to Wikipedia, 3 Portuguese immigrants, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias developed a pretty tiny instrument called Machete in the late 1980s in Portugal and got it with them to Hawaii.

Soon Hawaiian musicians fell in love with this instrument, adapted and modified it with a new name “UKULELE” as we know it today.

The compact size and country tone made it perfect for playing in small groups, night parties, etc by accompanying hula dancers and soon it became a staple of Hawaiian music.

The word “Ukulele” came from the Hawaiian words “uku,” meaning “flea,” and “lele,” meaning “jumping.” It means “Jumping Flea”.

Why Jumping Flea? Because when the player strums on it, his fingers look like a flea jumping upwards and downwards. This name was given by a Hawaiian named Edward Purvis.

Ukulele is synonymous with Hawaiian culture and music and with time it became famous all over the world.

The Rise of the Ukulele in the United States and Europe

rise of the ukulele

When immigrants from the United States and Europe came to Hawaii and saw this tiny but versatile instrument complementing fairly the Hawaiian musicians, they took it from Hawaii and mixed it with several other genres of music.

In the United States, the ukulele became popular in the 1920s and 30s. Musicians like George Formby, Arthur Godfrey, and Roy Smeck used this instrument in the jazz music genre and popularize this in the US.

It became a staple instrument in events and shows and early radio broadcasts in the US.

Later the ukulele’s popularity continued to grow throughout the mid-20th century and it came to Europe.

UK-based bands like The Quarrymen, and The Beatles introduced Ukulele to the mainstream audience. While in France it became associated with the popular chanson genre of music.

Today, Ukulele is a quite popular staple instrument all over the US, Europe, Japan, and other countries.

Ukulele Goes Global: Popularity in the 20th Century

As I have mentioned above, Ukulele got famous in the US and Europe in the early and mid-20th century and became popular around the world.

But, in the US and Europe, it gained so much popularity in between. The musicians from the US and Europe adapted and used it in shows, radio broadcasts, and records.

One of the artists whose role in the Ukulele’s popularity in Europe was Lonnie Donegan’s “The King of Skiffle”.

But, in the 1960s, Elvis Presley the king of rock and roll helped to make the ukulele cool and contemporary, thanks to his performance in the film Blue Hawaii.

Throughout the 20th century, Ukulele had been spreading around the world among vaudeville performers and jazz musicians.

The Ukulele in Contemporary Music: The Resurgence of Interest

Ukulele in Contemporary Music

In recent years, the Ukulele witnessed a resurgence in its popularity in contemporary music by musicians across a variety of genres.

In the 2000s, artists like Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, and Train brought the ukulele back into the mainstream, with their hits like “I’m Yours,” “Better Together,” and “Hey, Soul Sister”.

This instrument’s unique sound and versatility impressed composers all over the world and has been adopted in various genres like Hip-Hop, Jazz, Blues, and World Music.

Even “Creator and Chance” the Rapper have used the instrument in unexpected ways.

And, when social media has come, YouTubers and TikTokers like “Boy With Uke” saw its potential and used it in their videos, and it gained so much popularity on social media.

The Future of the Ukulele: What’s Next for this Iconic Instrument?

As Ukulele continues to gain popularity around the world, the future of the instrument is looking bright ever for me.

Musicians, Youtubers, and other social media influencers across a wide range of genres are embracing the ukulele’s unique sound and versatility. That’s why I think this pretty instrument has a bright future.

Here are some of the characteristics of this instrument that help it to become more popular in near future.

With its rich and fascinating history, unique sound, and continued popularity, the ukulele is sure to remain a beloved part of music around the world in the near future.

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Gautam Roy is a recording engineer and a blogger from India. He loves listening music, playing Guitar and Ukulele, writing, and travelling. He is also an active investor and a successful entrepreneur.

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