Ukuleles have seem to become the darling of many musicians and trendsetters. While having a very rich and complicated heritage and cultural importance, ukuleles have been through quite a lot. I mean… this instrument had a rise, downfall, and rise (again) in popularity probably in less time than I was able to write this sentence. Well, hyperboles aside, ukuleles seem to have a rather interesting dynamic with pop culture and mainstream usage. Nowadays, movies, tv shows, and music videos assimilating this quirky looking, mellow-sounding instrument and injecting it into the DNA of every teenager. Ukes have even come to compete in popularity with the king of kings among music instruments – the guitar. I know a lot of people seem to be annoyed by the idea of hipster teenagers and young adults strumming the same chords in unison with their favourite songs while sitting in their rooms covered with “The Smith” and “Joy Division” posters BUT let’s be honest – we all love the sound of a uke. There is something magical and calming about it. And as the modern pop culture is soaking in the glories of this beautiful instrument, let’s talk about its journey to the modern days and years of trials and tribulations.
Just like with any other instrument, or pretty much anything, the story of ukulele does not start with ukulele itself. And it also does not start in Hawaii, where a lot of people assume it originated. The long and complicated story of ukulele started in a small town on Madeira Islands, Atlantic southwest of Portugal. Well… in Madeira, it was not really called ukulele. In those old times, before reaching the beaches of Hawaii, the ukulele was known as machete de Braga (also related to instruments like rajao, the cavaquinho, and the timple). While today machete is not as popular as ukulele, it was the direct predecessor of what we now call ukulele. Like many other instruments, uke did not come into existence out of thin air BUT unlike a lot of other instruments, we actually know who to credit for its origins and popularization. Well, you see, during those times Madeira was not the best place to live if you wanted to sustain yourself. So hundreds of Madeirans embarked on a long journey Hawaiian. During the time, Hawaii was more or less prosperous due to their sugar cane fields. A lot of people from other places went there to find jobs and settles down in Hawaii, bringing their culture, including, you guessed, uke. In the 1870-1880s, among this Madeirans were three wood makers/cabinetmakers called Augusto Dias, Manuel Nunes, and Jose do Espirito Santo. In August of 1879, the three men reached the Harbour of Honolulu. It took only a few years for them to start making machetes, or what was later called ukuleles. And the rest is history or to be a little bit more concise this three man became first luthiers to have crafted a ukulele. Well, it is but then again, there were so many other factors that played in making ukulele such a popular instrument. One of those factors was King Kalākaua who was a fervent supporter of everything art.
Origin of the Name
How Portuguese machete turned into something we now know as ukulele is a complicated process that we cannot and will not get into. What we can get into is the origin of the name “ukulele”. While there is no foolproof fact why ukulele has its name, a lot of people attribute it to Edward William Purvis. Purvis was one of King Kalākaua’s officers who was known for being all over the place and agitated at all times. And if you have not taken extensive classes in Hawaiian, which probably a lot of us have not, “ukulele” translats as “jumping flea”.
20th Century and Mainland Popularity
While a lot of people think that ukulele came from obscurity just a decade or two ago, conquering the world by its sweet sound the instrument has been through a lot of ups and downs. Well, the first rise was, of course, when Portuguese came to Hawaii. Even though that was a shorter scale polarity, the mainland US did not waver for too long. By 1900, the ukulele was introduced to the mainlands and the rest of the world understood what they were lacking. With huge department stores and small music shops selling ukuleles for just a few dollars, and sometimes for free if you purchased lessons, ukulele infiltrated pretty much every household. Then came Great Depression and with people not being able to afford bigger, more expensive instruments like guitars and pianos, ukuleles became the cheaper, more popular option. For years, this small instrument was a huge business, chomping out thousands and thousands of models to be sold to people of any age and any class. After being in the limelight for years, ukuleles were “replaced” with chunkier, more voluminous instruments that were great for rock music.
Resurgence in the 1990s
After the 1960s, ukuleles were not as popular and a lot of people associated it with more exotic music (if they associated it with anything at all). But things changes, as they always do, and by 90s, the popularity of ukuleles started to rise again. This can be attributed to many, many things. One of the most influential figures in making ukulele famous again was Israel Kamakawiwo’ole with two of his most well-renowned songs: “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”. The song was used in multiple famous films as well as the times one of the most popular Tv Shows, ER. As important as Kamakawiwo’ole’s contribution was, there was no way for just one person to have created such a huge resurgence. Icons like Paul McCartney and George Harrison have used ukuleles in their performances in the 2000s, with Harrison saying: “Everybody should have and play a uke. It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh! It’s so sweet and also very old.”
It is also important to understand that while individuals do have quite an influence of making uke more popular, but it is also impossible to neglect the part that manufacturers and bigger corporations played in the process. First of all, we have Youtube. With such a huge platform it is possible to make anything popular. One of the most famous videos that were probably one of the first videos to go viral on Youtube was Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso’s 2006 cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”. While that one video kind of marked the moment when ukuleles reached the online platforms after there was a huge upsurge of videos in which people did covers of famous songs with the ukulele. There were, as with other instruments, tutorials, and reviews. This all made the instrument so easily approachable and easy to understand that people did not have any more resignation about buying the product.
With over hundred years in history, ukuleles have gone through a lot of ups and downs. From its introduction to Hawaii to gaining immense popularity after the 1990s, uke has seen its image change from an exotic instrument that no one had any idea how to play to become one of the most popular instruments that are beloved by millions. Ukulele popularity is not only due to random moments in history and luck. It is one of the easiest and the most approachable instruments. Within a day you can learn certain chords and from then on, the only sky’s the limit. With thousands of covers on Youtube, and hundreds of pop culture use of ukulele, ranging from romcoms to music videos, ukuleles have conquered outs hears and something tells me, it is here to stay for a while. If you have never before had the pleasure of playing ukulele or if you are looking for a new addition to your already huge collection of new and vintage ukuleles, we have dozens of reviews ranging from beginner-friendly to pro-level, soprano to baritone.