In 1879, the Portuguese master craftsman and instrument maker Manuel Nunes arrived in the Hawaiian Islands with Joao Fernandes and Augustine Dias. They were immigrants who came to work in the sugar cane fields. Together they invented and developed the ukulele taking basic designs of instruments from their native home.
Hawaiians were not only impressed with the beautiful sounds these instruments could make, but also with the speed these musicians' fingers flew on the fingerboard. It is said, they in turn began calling this instrument the Ukulele, which roughly translates as "Jumping Fleas". No matter what the real story behind the uke is, it became Hawaii's most popular musical instrument and much is attributed to the above mentioned Portuguese master craftsmen. The ukulele received royal acclaim with nobles such as King Kalakaua, Queen Emma and Queen Lili'uokalani playing this wonderful instrument. Which in turn may have made it more accepted by the people of Hawaii. All who learned the art of the ukulele loved it, from fisherman and taro farmers to Kings and Queens.
It was around 1915 that the ukulele's popularity migrated to the mainland. A Hawaiian music craze had hit starting in San Francisco and made its way across the country causing ukulele sales to raise. The craze even swept across the ocean to the UK.
The great demand for ukuleles in turn lead to a demand for uke manufacturing. Of the three original Portuguese ukulele makers, only Manuel Nunes remained and by 1910, orders were so numerous that he could not keep up with the demand. A young Samuel Kaialiilii Kamaka began his apprenticeship under Manuel Nunes (more on Kamaka Ukuleles). New competitors entered the field sometimes bringing unique design differences, tonal qualities and innovations. One of the competitors, Kumalae, had a new factory that could turn out around 300 instruments a month. Despite all the competition, there seemed to be plenty of business to go around as orders flooded in from all over.
Competition took a new turn as mainland guitar manufacturers entered the ukulele market around 1915. Hawaiian reaction was dismay and even anger. Mainland companies were stamping their ukuleles with the legend marker reading "Made in Hawaii". Hawaiians fought back by creating a distinctive trademark, which they had protected by legislation. Hawaii uke makers received authority to place "Made in Hawaii, U.S.A." and made it a misdemeanor to use the new legend marker on any ukuleles not made in the Hawaiian Islands.
In the 20s, mainland manufacturers such as Gibson, Harmony, Regal, National, Dobro and Martin (one of the most popular and successful maker... see our Martin SO ukulele), were mass-producing ukuleles by the thousands. Martin produced their first uke in 1916 based on the Nunes design. Many Hawaiians prize their Martin ukes, and have been heard to speak of its special tonal qualities to this day. At Bounty Music, we have been lucky enough to see a few of these beautiful old ukuleles.
In the 40s and 50s, the British music hall great George Formby and the American Arthur Godfrey kept the little instrument in the mainstream. Great players like Roy Smeck and Eddie Karnae kept playing fabulous music with the uke. But even with the arrival of Tiny Tim in the late 60s the popularity of the uke seemed to recede into people's closets and by the early 70s, Kamaka was the world's only manufacturer of ukuleles.
Today we are seeing resurgence in popularity of Hawaiian Music and the wonderful ukulele. Hawaii is home to several luthiers who have turned their talented hands and eyes to the ukulele. Maui Music is an excellent example with its distinctive thin body with amazing tone. It features abalone inlays and elaborate binding incorporated into their deluxe ukuleles. Standing up to the tests of time and now a part of the ukuleles history, Kamaka has endured. In a way, their popularity may be reflected by their 12-month back-order (customs like the Ohta-San are even longer).
"My Dog Has Fleas" is being heard by yet another generation throughout Hawaii. There is The Ukulele Festival here in Hawaii, which features many of the world's finest players, there are schools such as Roy Sakuma's Ukulele school with over 400 students and Mainland events from all over including Northern California's Ukulele Festival and the Uke Expo in Massachusetts. This fun and lovable instrument seems to be here to stay.
The Ukulele - it's light, very portable and brings a smile
A special thanks to articles and websites by Bruddah-Bu, Jim Beloff and others.