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A Brief History of the Ukulele November 13, 2017

Honolulu, Honolulu
A Brief History of the Ukulele, Honolulu, Hawaii

Known for its diminutive size and distinct sound, the ukulele is a beautiful instrument with a rich history. This member of the guitar family was developed more recently than you might think — its history stretches back to the 1880s. Here’s a brief look at the factors that led to the creation of this whimsical instrument.

In the late 1800s, indentured Portuguese emigrants traveled to the Hawaiian Islands to work in the sugar industry. After their first long sea voyage, musician Joao Fernandes celebrated the end of their journey by playing on a machête, a small, guitar-like instrument that originated in the Madeira Islands.

ukuleleAfter working on the sugar plantations, woodworkers Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose de Espirito Santo started living and working in Honolulu. The trio soon opened their own shops, giving music lessons and building string instruments. Although it isn’t clear who created the first ukulele, their work eventually led to its development. Nunes first claimed he invented the ukulele, which was likely a mash-up of the machête and another small Portuguese instrument called the rajão.

The ukulele was championed by David Kalakaua, the last king of Hawaii; his queen, Emma; and Lili’uokalani, the future queen. Through their influence, Hawaiians began developing their own music with the instrument, firmly incorporating it into Hawaiian culture.

The ukulele exploded in popularity during the 1920s, when Hawaiian sounds and themes were used by American songwriters. It also played a notable role during the Jazz Age, partially because it was inexpensive, fairly easy to learn, and portable.

After decades of declining popularity, interest in the ukulele was revived in the 1990s. In particular, the instrument’s unique sound was used in films, commercials, and television programs thanks to musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.” 


The ukulele is small, but its history is larger than life. For over 13 years, Aloha Music School in Honolulu, HI, has offered quality music instruction and the largest classical guitar selection on the Big Island. Whether you want to learn how to play the ukulele or inquire about instrument rentals, call (808) 728-6713, and visit them online to learn about their services.

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