Easy to learn but difficult to master, the ukulele is perhaps Hawaii’s most popular musical instrument. From King Kalakaua and Waikiki beach boys to one of Hawaii’s hottest young recording artists, millions of music lovers over the past 125 years have learned to appreciate this four-stringed instrument.
The ukulele was introduced to Hawaii in the summer of 1879, when the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu carrying more than 400 Portuguese immigrants. These people came to the Islands from the island of Madeira to work in the sugarcane fields. The story goes that a man named Joao Fernandes was so happy to finally reach Honolulu—it had been an exhausting, four-month journey of some 15,000 miles—that he grabbed a friend’s braguinha, jumped off the boat and began playing folk songs from his homeland right on the wharf. The crowd of Hawaiians who witnessed Fernandes’ impromptu playing was impressed, and they marveled at how his fingers jumped like fleas all over the fingerboard. Thus, they called the instrument “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.”
Fernandes wasn’t done. He spent much of his time in Hawaii playing the ukulele and giving lessons to eager Hawaiians who favored the instrument for its portability and unique sound. Even Hawaii’s reigning king, David Kalakaua, learned how to play the ukulele; in fact, the king later designed his own ukulele. By the late 1800s, nearly every Hawaiian music lover was playing a ukulele.
By the early decades of the 20th century, Hawaiian music had become wildly popular on the U.S. mainland, and the ukulele’s popularity soared to even greater heights. Wrote one observer in Paradise of the Pacific magazine: “The ukulele, that little taro-patch guitar, has for some time…been a fad from one end of the United States to the other. It is a symbol of innocent merriment. We should take off our hats to the little Hawaiian ukulele.
Today, the ukulele remains as popular as ever in Hawaii. Many ukulele manufacturers have a long backlog of orders (a top-of-the-line, customized ukulele can go for thousands of dollars). Each summer, students from Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele School join celebrity performers at the Ukulele Festival. Held at Kapiolani Park in Waikiki, the event includes an ukulele orchestra composed of hundreds of children.
Although he’s still in his 20s, Jake Shimabukuro is recognized as Hawaii’s ukulele virtuoso, with lightning-fast fingers and an innovative style. Shimabukuro has performed in Japan, New York and Las Vegas. He’s recorded two CDs for Epic Records and recently came out with his first DVD.