An ʻUkulele Comeback
Portability, playability and pleasant sound contribute to newfound popularity
Hawaiians, like these photographed by Williams Studio in Honolulu, circa 1892, quickly adopted the adapted Portuguese braginha
As a youngster, Takeo Kudo learned to strum basic chords on the ʻukulele. It was the first instrument he learned to play, but by fifth grade he’d lost interest. He stuck with music, earning degrees in theory, ethnomusicology and composition, and joined Mānoa’s music faculty as a professor of theory and composition. Then, about five years ago, he picked up the ʻukulele again.
"This coincided with a rebirth of interest in the instrument in Hawaiʻi and elsewhere, and I listened to different styles of playing," Kudo says. "I’m content to play the ʻukulele for the satisfaction of learning something new and playing something that sounds good."
In a sense, Kudo’s experience represents the story of the ʻukulele in Hawaiʻi—once all the rage, perhaps taken for granted for a time, now making a comeback.
Ironically, the quintessential Hawaiian instrument didn’t originate in Hawaiʻi. Like many an old, familiar refrain, the history bears repeating: Among the Portuguese workers arriving in Hawaiʻi in August 1879 were three wood workers who built the old world instrument called a braginha, says Byron Yasui, chair of Mānoa’s music composition/theory program and board member of the ʻUkulele Hall of Fame Museum. Legend suggests that a British sailor named Edward Purvis jumped around while playing the instrument, earning him the Hawaiian nickname ʻukulele (pronounced oo-koo-lele, the Hawaiian way), or jumping flea.
"Hawaiians learned to play the ʻukulele and eventually modified the instrument," adds Ron Loo, a Windward Community College philosophy professor and ʻukulele aficionado. The "merry monarch," King David Kalākaua helped promote the instrument, even building them in a workshop on the side of ʻIolani Palace, Loo says. Ernest Kaai became the first virtuoso. Émigré Manuel Nunes and his apprentice, Samuel Kamaka, established Hawaiʻi’s preeminence in ʻukulele making.
Century Magazine published The Hawaiian Musician by Herbert Vos in 1890; The original is in the Honolulu Academy of Art
"The ʻukulele would have been an obscure instrument if not for Hawaiʻi," says Yasui. Island musicians played ʻukulele in the Hawaiʻi pavilion at the 1900s Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. An ʻukulele craze ensued on the mainland during the 1920s, spurred on by Vaudevillians Roy Smeck and "ʻUkulele Ike" Cliff Edwards (the voice of Jiminy Cricket) and by New York teacher, arranger and radio performer "ʻUkulele Lady" May Singhi Breen. Arthur Godfrey is credited with creating a second wave of popularity through his 1950s national TV show.
By 1970, the ʻukulele was something of an oddity outside of Hawaiʻi, played by the likes of eccentric Tiny Tim on the Johnny Carson show. Rock was king. The guitar was electric. In Hawaiʻi, the ʻukulele was relegated to elementary classrooms and tourist hangouts. Still, Hawaiʻi musicians never stopped playing, never stopped innovating. Eddie Kamae and his protégé Herb Ohta kept the island tradition alive. Performers such as Israel Kamakawiwoʻole again carried the sound of ʻukulele as vocal accompaniment to mainland and international audiences while innovators advanced the instrument for its solo potential.
It’s not just the players who innovate, Loo says. "ʻUkulele builders are crafting all kinds of wonderful sounding instruments, with new structural designs. Some have multiple sound holes on the bottom instead of on the sounding board."
In 2000 Yasui put together a concert with Jake Shimabukuro, who had developed a rapid strumming technique, Gordon Mark (BFA ’69 Mānoa) and Benny Chong, probably the top jazz ʻukulele player in the world. "He has developed chords with new fingerings that no one else plays," Yasui says. Meanwhile, he and Florida’s John King incorporate classical guitar technique. "There has been a resurgence in interest in the ʻukulele," he adds. "Jake became popular and the ʻukulele took off." The ʻukulele was suddenly cool.
"There are three major reasons people might find an ʻukulele appealing," says Loo. "One is that it has a pleasing sound. Another is its portability. Yet another is the prominence of people such as Kahauanu Lake, Peter Moon (BA ’68 Mānoa), Jesse Kalima and Ohta-San Sr. in putting the ʻukulele on the map."
Musicians like Anthony Zabian, who played at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, created an ʻukulele craze on the mainland
The ʻukulele is also inexpensive, and it’s easier to play than a guitar, adds Yasui. Perhaps that accounts for the growing demand for classes. Keola Beamer offers an Aloha Music Camp every summer on Molokaʻi; Yasui will teach ʻukulele there in 2007. ʻUkulele is also a popular offering at Windward’s Hawaiʻi Music Institute. Loo says people from all over the world have contacted him about ʻukulele classes. Last summer’s workshop attracted people from neighbor islands as well as the mainland. Students can even learn to make their own ʻukulele.
As he reacquainted himself with the instrument, Kudo, who is fond of jazz, recalled hearing selections of Lyle Ritz on the radio. He practiced a small repertoire of chord fingerings and sought the advice of Yasui, who steered him to Benny Chong. "ʻUkulele players like myself can point to specific artists who provided inspiration," Kudo says. "I make up whatever comes to mind, although the results are obviously inspired by those who play the ʻukulele at a higher level."
The phrase, "a world of ʻukulele" gains meaning when one considers how many people are involved in its history, making, playing and (of course) listening, Kudo says.
Shopping for an ʻukulele
The ʻukulele comes in four sizes, from the smallest, or soprano, through alto (sometimes called concert ʻukulele) and tenor to the largest, or baritone
Unlike a guitar, an ʻukulele has no bass strings; its shorter strings produce a higher pitch
Byron Yasui offers sound advice… literally.
- A good tone that you like
- Sound that carries across a room
- Sustained sound that does not dissipate right away when strings are plucked
- Outer strings placed inside the edge of the wood so the finger doesn’t slide up the edge like a gutter ball in a bowling alley
- Good strings, because the best strings can make a poor ʻukulele sound good