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A Brief History of the Ukulele: Part 1

July 2009 39,056 views 5 Comments

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An excerpt from the book “Famous Solos & Duets for the ‘Ukulele” edited and arranged by John King

The ‘ukulele is not an indigenous Hawaiian instrument but was introduced into the Islands by the Portuguese at some date prior to the beginning of the 20th century. Most scholars fix the date of introduction at 1879, though it could have been earlier. It was in late August of that year that the three men most closely identified with the early history of the little four-stringed guitar arrived in Honolulu: Augusto Dias (1842-1915), Jose do Espirito Santo (1850-1905), and Manuel Nunes (1843-1922). Cabinet makers from Madeira, who eventually set up shop in Honolulu after paying off their passage and that of their families by fulfilling labor contracts with the Hawaiian sugar industry, Dias, Espirito Santo and Nunes were all advertising their services for making furniture and stringed instruments by 1886. Initially Dias and Nunes advertised Machets, or machetes, the name by which the predecessor to the ‘ukulele was known in Madeira. Within seven years of the arrival of the Portuguese, the machete had become known in Honolulu as the taropatch fiddle, a term which then quickly became identified with a larger five string instrument, also from Madeira, and known there as the rajao; since about 1915 the name taropatch has been reserved for a larger, four-course, eight-string ‘ukulele. The first evidence of the name ‘ukulele’ (though spelled ukelele) being applied to the smaller four-string instrument dates from an 1891 travel book by Helen Mather. She noted the playing of the “ukelele” and five string taropatch to accompany a hula performed on board a ship bound to Honolulu from San Francisco, a city which figured prominently in the popularization of Hawaiian music generally and the ‘ukulele in particular.

Early mainland appearances of the ‘ukulele were noted at the many world’s fairs held between 1893 and 1915. A quartet of Hawaiian performers known as the Volcano Singers entertained visitors to the Kilau‘ea Cyclorama during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. They accompanied themselves with guitars, five-string taropatch and ‘ukulele. The California Mid-Winter Fair of 1894, held in San Francisco, also featured a Kilau‘ea exhibit and a Hawaiian Village with Hawaiians playing the “taropatch” as well as giving lessons to enchanted San Franciscans. In 1897, the New York Times reported on “Hawaii’s Ex-Queen’s Concert”, a by-invitation-only performance held in her rooms at the Shoreham in Washington, D. C. The Times noted that deposed Queen Lili‘uokalani would be singing “songs of her nation” and playing autoharp and would be joined by Grace Hilborn, the daughter of a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from San Francisco, who would be singing Hawaiian songs and accompanying herself on the ‘ukulele “a native instrument that looks and sounds like a diminutive guitar.” By 1898, the ‘ukulele had become so associated with Hawaiians and their music that Lili‘uokalani referred to it as “our instrument.”

Espirito Santo was the first to advertise ‘ukulele (and taropatch fiddles) in the Honolulu City Directory, in 1898, the same year Dias advertised “instruments made of Hawaiian woods.” During the first decade of the new century these ‘made in Hawai‘i’ adaptations of the Portuguese machete were introduced to mainlanders in numerous ways. Tourists returning home from a visit to the ‘Paradise of the Pacific’ brought ‘ukulele back with them as souvenirs and gifts. Hawaiians entertained at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in Seattle. Hawaiian performers, including the Honolulu Students, Ellis Hawaiians, and Joseph Kekuku (father of the steel guitar) were highly sought after on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits and performed throughout the mainland. And the fledgling record industry, lead by PREFACE 6 Victor, Columbia, and Edison, began recording and selling Hawaiian music between 1905 and 1910. When Mr. & Mrs. Jack London sailed into Honolulu Harbor aboard the Snark with a Victor and 300 disks in May, 1907, and proceeded to play recordings of Hawaiian music for their guests “none of [whom] had heard Hawaiian music on the phonograph [they] clapped their hands over the hulas like joyous children.”

Budding interest in the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music blossomed after the premiere of Walter Morosco’s production of The Bird of Paradise, a play by Richard Walton Tully, which opened in Los Angeles in the early Fall of 1911. The play—which featured a quintet of Hawaiian musicians in the cast, singing and playing their instruments nearly non-stop—traveled to Chicago and Rochester before opening on Broadway in January, 1912. Backed by a group of San Francisco businessmen, including the sugar king Claus Spreckels, The Bird of Paradise toured the nation and was one of the most successful plays of the time; much of the credit for that success was attributed to the “weird and sensuous music.” In 1914, Leonardo Nunes (1874-1944), son of ‘ukulele pioneer Manuel Nunes, opened a shop and began making instruments under his own name in Los Angeles. In that same year, five ‘ukulele methods were published in California: two in San Francisco (Bailey, Keech) and three in Los Angeles (DeLano, Kealakai, Kia). As if to underscore this burgeoning interest retail giant Sears, Roebuck & Co. offered “Hawaiian” ‘ukulele for the first time in its Fall 1914 catalogue, stating “the ukulele is creating a sensation in this country, especially on the Pacific Coast, where it is exceedingly popular.”

Largely regarded as the seminal event in popularizing the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music on the mainland, the Panama- Pacific International Exposition opened in San Francisco in 1915. Billed as a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal, the Expo was also the symbolic rebirth of San Francisco following the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire. It was a huge event which as many as 17 million people attended. The scope and variety of the exhibits and amusements were astonishing. In The Story of the Exposition historian Frank Morton Todd called the Hawaiian Building “one of the most brilliant and beautiful elements of the Exposition,” featuring performances of Hawaiian music from an interior gazebo festooned with Hawaiian flora. In addition to the Hawaiian Building and a special “Hawaiian Day” held on Kamehameha’s birthday, the P. P. I. E. offered two other distinct performance venues for Hawaiian music: the Hawaiian Gardens in the Horticultural Building, and the Hawaiian Village on the “Zone” (midway). Todd commented, “people were about ready for a new sensation in popular music at the time of the Exposition, and the sweet voices of the Hawaiians raised in those haunting minor melodies … were enough to start another musical vogue. To this the exhibit of Jonah Kumalae of Honolulu ministered, for he showed Hawaiian ukuleles and taropatch fiddles.”

Following the P. P. I. E. the number of ‘ukulele manufacturers increased dramatically on the mainland, and in the Islands existing makers struggled to meet demand. All the major music houses in the U.S., including Oliver Ditson and all its branches on the East Coast, Lyon & Healy in Chicago, and Sherman, Clay & Co. in California, were engaged in making or distributing ‘ukulele. High-end guitar makers C.F. Martin & Co. had entered the fray by 1917, marketing three styles of ‘ukulele. Orders for instruments in the mail-order catalogues of Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward surged. In 1918, four years following their initial offering of just two styles of ‘ukulele, Sears offered no fewer than sixteen different “Hawaiian Instruments” including birch wood, mahogany, and koa wood ‘ukulele, eightstring taro patch fiddles and banjo-ukes. In 1924 Cliff Edwards appeared in George and Ira Gershwin’s first Broadway show, Lady Be Good, playing the ‘ukulele and 7 singing alongside Fred and Adele Astaire. At least one performer, Frank Lane, hoped to cheat oblivion by billing himself in 1925 as “one of the few remaining entertainers who work without the aid of a ukelele.”

From obscurity to international fame, the phenomenal popularity of the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music proved the predictions of at least two critics wrong. In 1850 John A. Dix, a former U.S. Senator from New York (and later governor of the same state), published a book of his travels in Madeira. He commented on the ubiquity of the little four-string guitar, noting however, that “its music … is thin and meagre. It is not probable that the machete will ever emigrate from Madeira. It is the most common instrument here; but I doubt very much whether it would be, if this were not its birthplace.” John R. Musick, writing in 1898 in a book entitled Hawaii … Our New Possessions, remarked “If the natives have a special talent for anything, it is music. Some of them have composed, but their music is as narrow as their own sphere, and will never become widely popular.” Of the three original Portuguese ‘ukulele makers, only Nunes lived to see the instrument become popular. Espirito Santo died of blood poisoning in 1905, and Dias succumbed to tuberculosis in February of 1915, just 15 days before the opening of the P. P. I. E. Nunes’ death from heart failure in 1922 was reported on the front pages of both Honolulu newspapers, probably due to a successful marketing campaign begun about 1910, that attributed the ‘invention’ of the ‘ukulele to the young cabinet maker in 1879.

One Hawaiian who believed the ‘ukulele was “not an invention but rather a creation” was Ernest Ka‘ai (1881-1962), the “most eminent of Hawaiian musicians” and arguably the most influential musical figure in Hawai‘i in the first quarter of the 20th century. A gifted performer on many instruments including the mandolin, guitar and ‘ukulele, Ka‘ai was also an impressario, teacher, publisher and recording artist and he owned an ‘ukulele manufacturing company. Known in Honolulu as the “Father of the Ukulele” Ka‘ai was said to have been the first musician “to play a complete melody with chords” on that instrument. He also wrote the earliest known ‘ukulele method. Although its location is now uncertain, Hawaiian music authority Amy Stillman catalogued the (presumed) first edition of Ka‘ai’s The Ukulele, A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It in the 1980’s. It was published by Wall, Nichols Co. of Honolulu in 1906. An advertisement for the “Kaai Music School” from the 1909 Honolulu telephone directory stated that Ka‘ai taught the ‘ukulele “from Method.” In addition to these references, ‘ukulele historian Tom Walsh owns an original receipt dated 1906 from the Kaai Music Studios (and signed by Ka‘ai) for several lessons and an “ukulele book”: undoubtedly the 1906 “ghost” imprint.

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