Journeying With The Ukulele: A Brief History
The four-stringed instrument, which is somewhat akin to a guitar in appearance, has often been said to have originated in Hawaii, but this widely known story is a misconception. The idea of the instrument was originally borne out of two older instruments which are the Cavaquinho and the Machete, also known as the Braguinha or the Machete de Braga. The name Machete de Braga originated from the fact that the instrument was usually produced up-north of Madeira in Braga.
This Machete was a locally popular instrument of the people of a Portuguese city called Madeira. It also could have been said to be their cultural instrument. Madeira is a small mountainous island in the Atlantic. It is an autonomous region of Portugal, located southwest and close to the coast of North Africa. The climate is known for its thriving timber industry. Back in the 19th century in Madeira, Funchal, the port city was a bustling city where tourists would travel to watch street performers play their music.
The history of the circumstances through which the Ukulele was born is very much intertwined with the economy of Madeira as well as Hawaii in the 1880s.
As at the mid-1880s, Hawaii was known for a lucrative sugar industry. But later within the decade, the country suffered a continuous series of natural disasters and deadly diseases that were a result of the European colonization. These diseases led to several deaths and thus caused the population to decline sporadically. This equally meant that the economy had stopped thriving as there weren’t enough workers to work on the sugar plantations and factories. The farmers in Hawaii were desperate for help and thus extended a search for contract workers to the world. Coincidentally, the people in Madeira also needed a change of environment because they had also been encountering natural disasters and they could no longer cultivate timber to keep their economy robust. This is how Madeira and Hawaii became affiliated by business and the people of Madeira they took up Hawaii’s job offer.
Among the 25,000 people who had signed a work contract and were headed to Hawaii to make a new life, were some woodworkers who were originally from Madeira’s port city, Funchal. And after a long four-month journey, the people of Madeira finally arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii’s port city. In the high spirits of celebration, one of the formerly mentioned woodworkers, Fernandes Joao, began to sing and play music with their city’s signature machete to commemorate their arrival in a new land. Hawaiian locals who stopped by to listen were fascinated by the instrument, the melodies it created, and the speed at which the player’s fingers were flying across the strings. The astonishing speed and movement of the player’s fingers were what led to the first name of the instrument, “the jumping flea”, a rough translation of “ukulele”. And later on, the King at the time was a patron of arts and he strongly supported the promotion of the instrument. And gradually like that, the ukulele became a part of Hawaiian music and culture and was also incorporated into performances at royal gatherings.
THE UKULELE IN OTHER PARTS OF THE WORLD
At a steady pace, the ukulele gained fame and the knowledge of it spread across the world. It particularly gained the attention of the mainland Americans during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (a Hawaiian ceremony that was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal) that was held from spring to fall of 1915 in San Francisco. The Exposition featured Hawaiian ukulele players, who performed in groups and as soloists. Afterwards, the ukulele began to acquire fans in mainland America and was subsequently introduced and integrated into other music genres. Later in April 1923, a vaudeville performer, Roy Smeck, appeared playing the Ukulele in a short film, titled Stringed Harmony. The increasing popularity and the availability of inexpensive models made the ukulele to be viewed as a suitable beginner’s instrument. And soon enough, the instrument became one of the musical icons of the Jazz Age.
Also in 1929, the Ukulele arrived in Japan through a Hawaiian-born Japanese man who had come back for his father’s funeral. And together with his brother, they bred enthusiasm for the instrument. Although all western music was banned later on during World War II, the fans and players kept the instrument and its knowledge in secret. And after the war, it resumed its popularity on an even higher level.
While in the United Kingdom, the ukulele was introduced as a hybrid instrument, called the Banjolele, alongside the Banjo by George Formby. He was a singer and a comedian. The popularity and demand for the ukulele and the Banjolele surged even higher, and this was due to the simple nature of the instrument and also its portable size.
In the 1960s, the Ukulele made its way to Canada and the United Kingdom. Canada was said to have been one of the first countries to have initiated teaching the ukulele in the school curriculum (asides from Hawaii). The ukulele was taught as an affordable version of teaching stringed instruments in a music program and was considered as an adaptation of a beginner’s instrument. It was also meant to raise children’s awareness of music instruments and foster musical literacy to a degree.
From the introduction of the ukulele to its spread around the world, it has received quite the warm reception. This could be attributed to the types of occasions through which it has constantly being introduced and the ability of the instrument to conquer the ears and hearts of its listeners through its melodies.
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