The history of Hawaiian music was altered forever with the arrival of three woodworkers from the Madeira Islands in 1879. The Portuguese had been arriving in Hawaii in small numbers since the 1850s, mostly as cast aways from whaling ships. But it wasn’t until 1878 when the Hawaiian government made a concerted effort to import Portuguese labor from the Madeira and Azores Islands to balance out the increasing number of Chinese laborers found on the sugar plantations that the Portuguese population significantly increased.
It was a very conscience decision to bring in labor from these islands. With a majority of the sugar plantation labor being of Asian decent there was a desire by the plantation owners to diversify the labor population. Various European options were explored, but it was decided that the islanders of Madeira and Azores with their familiarity with sugar cultivation, comfort with island living and a similar terrain and climate to Hawaii, would be the best source of new labor. So starting in 1878 and over the next ten years about 10,000 Portuguese people arrived in Hawaii with about 3,000 of them serving as sugar plantation workers.
The second ship to arrive in Hawaii from the Madeira Islands with plantation labor and their families was the Ravenscrag. Among the 419 people on this ship were Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, who were cabinet and instrument makers from Madeira. It is believed that not only were those interested in working the sugar plantations brought to Hawaii, but those with specialty skills as well to help diversify the plantation labor and encourage stability among the workers. And in fact Madeira was well known for its wooded forests and talented woodworkers, thus these islands were named Madeira for this reason, as Madeira is Portuguese for wood.
Woodworkers held an important role in Madeiran society, they built cabinets, furniture and almost more importantly musical instruments. Madeira has a strong folk music tradition and it is said that almost every Madeiran has some familiarity with playing one of the many small stringed instruments native to those islands. Most of these stringed instruments are versions of those found on mainland Portugal. One of these is the cavaquinho which was brought to Madeira in the 1850s and renamed the braguinha. Braguinha means “little braga” and is a reference to the its small size relative to the well known braga which was already familiar to the Madeirans.
Here is a picture of the cavaquinho:
And here is a picture of a braguinha:
So it was the braguinha that was one of the two instruments brought to Hawaii by these Madeiran wood workers. Along with the braguinha the other instrument brought here on this fateful voyage was the rajao. Here is a picture of a rajao:
As you can see from these pictures all three of these instruments bear a striking resemblance to the ukulele so closely associated with Hawaii today. This is because the ukulele is the offspring of the braguinha and the rajao. It is interesting how the ukulele came to be by combining elements of each instrument’s size, tuning and style of play. In Madeiran folk music the rajao played the rhythm while the braguinha played the leads. By taking the size of the braguinha and adding the tuning and playing style of the rajao, the ukulele was born.
From the Hawaiian perspective they must have been highly intrigued with these new instruments. According to legend when the Madeiran immigrants landed in Honolulu they kissed the ground and started playing music and singing songs on their braguinha and rajao. The Hawaiians were probably familiar with this passionate singing and playing as it is not to far removed historically and culturally from the Mexican Ranchera music brought here by the vaqueros (see part 3 of this series). Again, Hawaiians at this time were fascinated with things from the outside world and had a strong desire to take these things and adapt them to make them their own.
Soon after arriving here and seeing an interest in their native instruments, Nunes, Dias and Espirito Santo began building versions of the rajao and braguinha. According to Nunes’ granddaughter he simply removed the top fifth string from the rajao to create the first ukulele. This would correspond with the original Hawaiian g, c, e, a tuning. Whether it was a matter of convenience, efficiency or appeal, the smaller bodied braguinha was preferred for the design of the instrument. These first ukulele were built using the most common large hard wood in Hawaii the acacia koa tree. Some of the first ukulele looked like this:
Soon Hawaiian makers emerged as well. One of the most well known in the early years was Jonah Kumalae and later Ernest Kaai. Soon after other Hawaiian makers started shops including the most well known and only one still in business today Samuela Kamaka. Here is a picture of a Kumalae ukulele:
And a Kamaka:
So how did all of this change Hawaiian music? It is interesting how the musical influence of the Mexican vaqueros set up a need for a more accessible and easier to play stringed instrument in Hawaii. You have to figure that after the vaqueros returned to Mexico and left their guitars here, there weren’t a large number of instruments available for the Hawaiian public. With no knowledge of how to build them or access to the wood making tools needed to make such a detailed product, there were only a small number of instruments to go around. There may have been a few guitars brought here on whaling ships or by church missionaries, but considering there is little of any documentation of this and given the limited cargo space available on those long voyages, it is unlikely.
So while Hawaiians had created a specific style of singing and song composition based on the Mexican ranchera music and church hymns with roots in their native language and chants, they had no easily available instrument to play on. The ukulele was a perfect accompaniment, it was small, easy to play and had a strong rhythmic quality that would support this new form of music developing here. They were also easy to build and not long after the Medeirans arrival here they were being produced in large numbers and available for a relatively cheap price. Unlike the guitar which was large, hard to build and not easy to get, everyone began to play the ukulele. This made every Hawaiian a music maker. Anyone could get an ukulele and start writing and making music. With the spread of church culture and church based education systems in Hawaii, singing and song composition were skills available and known to anyone. These combining factors allowed for a hot bed of new music emanating from Hawaii. All the stars were aligned for HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. Songs, lyrics and melody could be created and shared by everyone with no limits placed on what was the norm or the accepted folk form. It was being created in real time without prejudice or bounds.
So that leads us to the million dollar question, where did the word “ukulele” come from? Great question and there are three main theories behind this. The most commonly shared one is that upon observing the playing style required by the fingers of the first Madeiran performers, the Hawaiians called it “uku lele” which would translate as “jumping flea” as that is what the motion of the fingers on the strings resembled. A second theory is that “uku lele” stands for another translation of the tearms “uku” for “gift” and lele” for “flying.” This interpretation says the Hawaiians saw the ukulele as a gift that “flew” here from afar. And finally the third theory is that “ukulele” comes from a simple alteration of “ukeke” or a combination of “ukeke and mele.” Ukeke being the simple single stringed gourd harp native to Hawaii and “mele” meaning song.
We will never know for sure. It is common in the Hawaiian language to simply “hawaiianize” an outside word to fit it into the phonetic system of the Hawaiian language. See “kika” as a term for “guitar.” With “braguinha” and “rajao” neither really fits in nicely with any Hawaiian linguistic sounds or syllabic structure. Also, the original instrument was altered so it would make sense that a new term was necessary, not a “hawaiianization” of the original word. The “jumping flea” interpretation is plausible as Hawaiians often came up with terms for new items by describing the action being done, or the event taking place with the new item, see bicycle “ka`a hehi wāwae” “vehicle feet press”.
For the interpretation of “uku lele” as “flying gift” it is documented that this term was coined by Queen Liliuokalani. My interpretation is that looking for a more poetic and lofty description if this instrument, Liliuokalani devised her own interpretation of “ukulele” to fit in with her heightened view of Hawaiian music and musicians. Something that the term “jumping flea” did not accomplish.
As for the third theory, this one makes the most logical sense to me, but the linguistic history doesn’t support it. It is rare for Hawaiians to change a native word to fit in to describe a new item. While the ukeke does have a string on it making somewhat similar to a ukulele, the similarities end there. They are completely different in size, use and function. On top of that it is rare for the Hawaiians to alter a native word. The jump from “ukeke” to “ukulele” isn’t something that happens in the Hawaiian language. I can see the possibility of the name “ukeke mele” as the ukulele is like a musical, “song-y” variation of the single string “ukeke” but there is no evidence of Hawaiians shortening or combining parts of two words to create a new word. Sometimes Hawaiian words get changed by non-native speakers when they are hard to pronounce, but because ukulele were being built and used in Hawaii by Hawaiians I don’t se how a bastardization of “ukeke mele” (if this is the actual source) would get changed to “ukulele.”
So I think it is a combination of all of these. The Hawaiians were very fond of word puns and subtle relationships between words. Word play was common and similarities between sounds and meaning were often explored and appreciated for the possible variation in meaning and interpretation. With only 13 letters and limited rules for syllabic structure, this was necessary to create a diverse language to describe the diverse world and world view available tot he Hawaiian speaker. So the fact that “ukulele” filled three functions, described the manner in which it is played, gave it a poetic description and also subtly referenced the only known stringed instrument in pre-contact Hawaii, “ukulele” was the perfect fit!
We may never know the exact reason for the naming of this new instrument the ukulele. But for the purposes of this blog entry we can look at the influence this instrument had on the development of music in Hawaii. Again, most importantly the accessibility and ease of playing the ukulele made in instrument of the commoner. This opened up the possibility of song creation and song performance by almost anyone. Also the rhythmic qualities of the ukulele supported the syncopation and bouncy tempos of Hawaiian music.
Over time, most significantly through the contributions of Eddie Kamae (see my post on the Heart of the Ukulele and part 2) and Jesse Kalima, it became a solo instrument. Filling the gap left by the waning popularity of the steel guitar, the ukulele became a lead instrument in the hands of these talented players. This was later developed by Herb Ohta, also known as Ohta-San, (my favorite album being “Pacific Potpourri”) who made important physical changes tot he instrument. Replacing the high re-entrant “g” string, with a low wound “g” note that made for a linear progression of the strings from low to high and opened up new melodic range and possibilities. He also asked the Kamaka family to build a larger sized body and neck length to support more notes and the increased demand on tonal variation.
This was taken to new levels by Peter Moon in his work with The Sunday Manoa as he explored deeper chordal, melodic and technical possibilities with the ukulele. See the song “Pua Lilia”. From there, building on the advancements of these four important figures in ukulele playing, the doors were open for other skilled players like Tony Fernandez and Kelly Boy DeLima. And of course this culminated in the amazing skills of Jake who is not a Hawaiian musician per se, is without peer in modern ukulele playing and has shown the amazing complexity possible with this small four stringed instrument with roots in the Madeira Islands.
And there are many gaps in between these important players that could be filled with a thousand blog posts, some of which I hope to cover in the future. From the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 to the vaudevillian appeal of the ukulele in the 1920s to the tourist culture of 1950s and Elvis’s subsequent use of the ukulele in popular movies to Arthur Godfrey’s lessons on his popular radio show to Tiny Tim’s eccentric playing on the Tonight Show and to Jake Shimabukuro’s YouTube video of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” the ukulele has a long and storied history.
While the music of Medeira never took hold here in Hawaii, its instruments surely did. That’s why I titled this post the “Medeiran Musicmakers.” They literally “made” music by building these first ukulele. Using their hands and the woodworking skills native to their homeland these three simple Medeiran cabinet makers changed the course of Hawaiian music forever. There was a movement to HO`ANALU….to go beyond known boundaries. The people of Hawaii took this small four stringed instrument and adapted it to their music playing, and in return their music playing adapted along with it.
If you haven’t already please see the first three parts in this series where I cover the Polynesian music foundation, the church influence and the music of the vaqueros. Stay tuned for future posts about European Royal Music, American Ragtime and Jazz, American Big Band Music, American Country and Folk Music and Caribbean Reggae Music as I explore the theme of the influence of world music on modern Hawaiian music during our World Cup season.