• Maisie Loh

Getting to Know the Ukulele’s Origins



For those of you who have been playing or are interested in learning the ukulele, you may be interested to know the ukulele’s origins. Getting to know the ukulele’s origins help you understand the instrument better and gain an appreciation for its sounds and use.


Hail from Hawaii Made by Immigrants

The ukulele is known as a small string instrument that hails from Hawaii. However, it was not made by the Hawaiians. The ukulele was created via the history of immigration to Hawaii in the mid to late 1880s.


Immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, and Portugal arrived on the island with contracts to work on sugarcane plantations. By that time, the Portuguese already had a long tradition of stringed and fretted instruments with larger guitars and lutes being developed in smaller versions popular with seafaring musicians.


The guitar in Portugal had by then shrunk to become a ‘machete’, still retaining the shape of the figure 8-shaped guitar, though the shape was not always a necessity in design. Four Portuguese who arrived in Hawaii began making instruments for the poor rural populations. What gained popularity was the new version of the machete.


How the Name Ukulele Originated

The machete was also known as the cavaquinho. It was a small four-stringed instrument used by laborers to relax and have a jam session together after hard work in the fields. The Hawaiians were fascinated by the players’ fingers jumping back and forth on the strings and eventually named the little four-stringed instrument the ukulele, which translates as jumping flea.




Gaining Popularity with the Royalty to the US

King David Kalakaua soon caught on with the popularity craze of the ukulele. The King, who is also a musician, has been credited with creating the contemporary style of ukulele’s music in modern hula. He was also known for entertaining guests with his singing and ukulele playing.


The ukulele reached the US when the US annexed Hawaii and the island was marketed as a tropical island getaway in mainland America. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 displayed plenty of ukulele music and sparked the ukulele boom in the 1920s.


The Great Depression in 1928 caused the American economy to collapse and the ukulele was forgotten for a while. But World War Two saw the small four-stringed instrument’s return to popularity as U.S. troops returned from Hawaii with ukuleles as souvenirs.


Modern Day Popularity of the Ukulele

The ukulele became a popular instrument internationally thanks to the internet. Musicians such as James Hill have also created modern sounds from the ukulele playing it with chopsticks and creating beats on songs like ‘Billie Jean’ to captivate the audience and increase its popularity with the young.


It is easy to pick up the ukulele as it only requires learning a few chords to start strumming to your favorite song. But you can do a lot more with the ukulele as James Hill did. Find out how you can start your journey playing the ukulele from Ritmo Music Studio in Singapore.


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