The Ukulele History

Many people think that the ukulele is a Hawaiian instrument, and that its history starts in the islands of Hawaii. However, that is only partly true. The ukulele has a more complex and fascinating origin story that involves different cultures and countries..

Here you have some Ukulele history facts:

In the mid-19th century, many of the native Hawaiian workers in the growing sugar industry died of diseases. Hawaii therefore started importing workers from other countries.

First of all, they tried with Chinese workers. Later from 1878 they started hiring contract workers from Portugal. Mainly from Madeira and then from Cape Verde and the Azores. This is where the Ukulele story begins.

By the way, if you are interested in the islands of Macaronesia, you can read about them on these links. They are in Norwegian, but you can translate them into any language: Madeira, Cape Verde and the Azores.

The Ukulele history - Madeira (

The workers from Madeira were eager to leave their islands, as they faced hunger and drought. The Hawaiians thought that the workers from these islands were ideal. They were used to a subtropical climate and had experience in sugar production. Including their families and relatives, about 10,700 Portuguese arrived in Hawaii.

They also brought something else with them, and that was their musical instruments. The instruments were called machete, the cavaquinho, (or Braguinha), the timple and the rajão. These were the ancestors and the origin of the ukulele.

(It was also immigration from other European countries, among them Norway, but that’s another story.)

Ukulele history troubadour

“Linda rosinha” on cavaquinho

How the Ukulele got popular on Hawaii

Firstly, as we mentioned before, the Hawaiian ukulele is derived from the instruments from Madeira, especially the Braguinha.

This small instrument became popular in Hawaiian musical culture thanks to the support and promotion of King Kalākaua. He was a patron of the arts and encouraged the preservation and celebration of Hawaiian culture and traditions. He also loved music and often played the ukulele himself.

One of the immigrants from Madeira who influenced the development of the ukulele was Joao Fernandez because he brought a Braguinha with him when he arrived in Hawaii in 1879. Fernandez was a skilled musician who could play fast and lively tunes on his instrument. He impressed the Hawaiian people, and especially their king, with his musical talent and style. He is considered one of the pioneers of the ukulele in Hawaii.

The first ukulele makers in Hawaii were three cabinet makers from Madeira: Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias. They were among the first Madeirans to respond to the call for contract workers in Hawaii, and they and their families arrived in Honolulu on August 23, 1879 aboard the ship Ravenscrag. After arrival, they started making ukuleles based on their native instruments, and they are therefore considered the fathers of the ukulele in Hawaii.

The name: Ukulele

The name of the ukulele has different meanings and interpretations. One of them is “the gift that came here”, as explained by the last Hawaiian monarch Queen Liliʻuokalani. She said that the name comes from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). This reflects the origin of the instrument as a gift from the Portuguese immigrants.

However, another meaning of the name can be “jumping flea”. This is a rough translation from Hawaiian, based on the observation of the players’ fingers. They move quickly and nimbly on the strings, like fleas jumping on a surface.

Cavaquinho Portugal:

The Ukulele out to the world.

The Ukulele history in USA:

The ukulele became popular in the United States in the early 20th century, and from there it spread to other countries.

One of the events that sparked the ukulele craze in the USA was the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. This was a world’s fair that showcased the cultures and innovations of various nations. Hawaii had a pavilion where a ukulele ensemble performed Hawaiian music and songs. The visitors were enchanted by the sound and appearance of the ukulele, and soon it became a fashionable instrument to play and collect. Therefore, this event is considered to be the start of the ukulele popularity in the USA.

The Ukulele history in Japan:

Yukihiko Haida, who was born in Hawaii and returned to Japan after his father’s death, introduced the Ukulele to Japan in 1929. However, during the World War II, the Japanese government banned Western music, forcing the Ukulele players to hide their instruments and practice in secret. Therefore, when the war ended, the Ukulele’s popularity surged as people could finally enjoy its cheerful sound openly. Today, Japan is the second home for many Hawaiian musicians who love to share their culture and music with the Japanese audience.

The Ukulele history in Canada:

J. Chalmers Doane revolutionized the school-music programs in Canada in the 1960s by introducing the Ukulele as a low-cost and easy-to-learn instrument. Through his remarkable program, he taught about 50.000 children and adults how to play the Ukulele and enjoy music.

The Ukulele history from 1970s:

The Ukulele’s popularity faded from the 1970s until the late 1990s, when new manufacturers began to produce the instrument and a new generation of players emerged. One of the pioneers who revived the Ukulele’s appeal was Jim Beloff in the early 1990s. He published over 2 dozen of books (#Ad) with Ukulele music, featuring both classic and modern songs.

The Daily Ukulele by Jim and Liz Beloff - Ukulele history

Different sizes and popularity

Over the years, the Ukuleles have come in a variety of sizes, ranging from the Pocket Ukulele to the Contrabass Ukulele (2012). (Go to: Ukulele types)

However, another major factor that contributes to the Ukulele’s popularity today is YouTube. This is because YouTube offers:

  • Videos of great musicians playing the instrument.
  • Videos with instructions on how to play.

Here you can find easy ukulele songs, ukulele songs for beginners and good ukulele songs.

Watch this 🙂

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Finally, Basic Ukulele was founded in 2015 with the aim of making it easier for anyone who wants to learn or find out more about this wonderful instrument.