Sunday, May 6, 2012

The 'Ukelele

While researching articles and papers concerning the Portuguese migration to California, I came across a paper written by Robert Santos, Librarian/Archivist at California State University in Stanislaus County.

Reading Section VII, I was surprised to learn about a Portuguese migration to the Kingdom of Hawaii in the late nineteenth century. However, I was even more surprised to learn that the ukelele was brought to the Hawaiian islands by the Portuguese.

Since the paper's focus was the migration of Azoreans to California, Mr. Santos provides a very brief mention of the history of the ukelele. The ukelele is an adaptation of the cavaquinho, a small 4-stringed guitar from Madeira made first in 1877 by cabinetmaker, Manuel Nunes. He claims that the word ukelele means jumping mosquito.

Next, I wanted know how the ukelele is different from the cavaquinho. I came across an article at the 'Ukelele Guild of Hawai'i website by John King. The article confirms Mr. Santos' assertion that the ukelele was brought to Hawaii by the Madeiran Portuguese. However, Mr. King's article differs in other respects.

John King's article on the history of the ukelele refers to a strange little instrument that looked and sounded like a cross between a guitar and an banjo that the Maderian immigrants brought with them called the machete. Wikipedia indicates that machete is the name used in Maderia for the cavaquinho. Apparently, some Portuguese cabinetmakers also made stringed instruments. They were called luthiers.

I mentioned in my last post that in 1877 the Hawaiian government recruited workers from the Azores to work in the sugar cane fields. The government also recruited workers from Madeira. The workers began arriving in 1878 but were obligated to work 3 years in the cane fields of Kauai, Maui and Hawaii.

As a laborer in the sugar cane fields, Manuel Nunes would have little time to make stringed instruments. It was probably sometime in 1881 or 1882 that he would have had an opportunity to take up his old occupation. By 1885, Nunes was in Honolulu and advertised himself in a Portuguese language newspaper as a cabinetmaker and maker of stringed instruments.

Manuel Nunes was one of three cabinetmaker/luthiers to arrive in Hawaii about 1878. Augusto Dias advertised  in 1884-85 Honolulu City Directory. In 1885, Jose do Espirito Santo advertised in the Portuguese language newspaper too. It is not clear who really first made the ukelele. Manuel Nunes is self-professed as the inventor of the ukelele (1916 Honolulu City Directory). But Espirito Santo was the first to advertise ukeleles (1898 Honolulu City Directory) while Dias advertised in the same directory, "instruments made of Hawaiian wood."

Robert Santos claims that ukelele means jumping mosquito. Whereas, John King says the name is derived by the way that the instrument is played. It was coined about 1891 from two words, uke and lele. Uke means to strike; lele means to jump. I found another website about the history of the ukelele. This author says that ukelele means jumping flea but then points out additional stories of what the name means, who invented it, etc.

One last comment...

Besides being made from Hawaiian wood, how is the ukelele different from the machete? From what I can tell the only difference is how the instrument is tuned.


Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement by Robert L. Santos. Denair, CA: Alley-Cass Publications, 1995.

Prolegomena to A History of the 'Ukulele by John King.

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