The history of Hawaiian music was altered forever with the arrival of three woodworkers from the Madeira Islands in 1879. The Portuguese had been arriving in Hawaii in small numbers since the 1850s, mostly as castaways from whaling ships. But it wasn’t until 1878 when the Hawaiian government made a concerted effort to import Portuguese labor from the Madeira and Azores Islands to balance out the increasing number of Chinese laborers found on the sugar plantations that the Portuguese population significantly increased.
It was a conscience decision to bring in labor from these islands. With a majority of the sugar plantation labor being of Asian descent there was a desire by the plantation owners to diversify the labor population. Various European options were explored, but it was decided that the islanders of Madeira and Azores with their familiarity with sugar cultivation, comfort with island living and a similar terrain and climate to Hawaii, would be the best source of new labor. So starting in 1878 and over the next ten years about 10,000 Portuguese people arrived in Hawaii with about 3,000 of them serving as sugar plantation workers.
The second ship to arrive in Hawaii from the Madeira Islands with plantation labor and their families was the Ravenscrag. Among the 419 people on this ship were Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, who were cabinet and instrument makers from Madeira. It is believed that not only were those interested in working the sugar plantations brought to Hawaii, but those with specialty skills as well to help diversify the plantation labor and encourage stability among the workers. And in fact Madeira was well known for its wooded forests and talented woodworkers, thus these islands were named Madeira for this reason, as madeira is Portuguese for wood.
Woodworkers held an important role in Madeiran society, they built cabinets, furniture and almost more importantly musical instruments. Madeira has a strong folk music tradition and it is said that almost every Madeiran has some familiarity with playing one of the many small stringed instruments native to those islands. Most of these stringed instruments are versions of those found on mainland Portugal. One is the cavaquinho, which was brought to Madeira in the 1850s and renamed the braguinha. Braguinha means “little braga” and is a reference to its small size relative, the well known braga, which was already familiar to the Madeirans.
So it was the braguinha that was one of the two instruments brought to Hawaii by these Madeiran wood workers. Along with the braguinha the other instrument brought on this fateful voyage was the rajão.
These instruments bear a striking resemblance to the ukulele so closely associated with Hawaii today. The ukulele is the offspring of the braguinha and the rajão. It is interesting how the ukulele came to be by combining elements of each instrument’s size, tuning, and style of play. In Madeiran folk music the rajão played the rhythm while the braguinha played the leads. By taking the size of the braguinha and adding the tuning and playing style of the rajão, the ukulele was born.
From the Hawaiian perspective they must have been highly intrigued with these new instruments. According to legend when the Madeiran immigrants landed in Honolulu they kissed the ground and started playing music and singing songs on their braguinha and rajão. The Hawaiians were probably familiar with this passionate singing and playing as it is not to far removed historically and culturally from the Mexican ranchera music brought by the vaqueros. Hawaiians at this time were fascinated with things from the outside world and had a strong desire to take these things and adapt them to make them their own.
Soon after arriving in Hawaii and seeing an interest in their native instruments, Nunes, Dias and do Espirito Santo began building versions of the rajão and braguinha. According to Nunes’ granddaughter he simply removed the top fifth string from the rajão to create the first ukulele. This would correspond with the original Hawaiian g, c, e, a tuning. Whether it was a matter of convenience, efficiency or appeal, the smaller bodied braguinha was preferred for the design of the instrument. These first ukuleles were built using the most common large hardwood in Hawaii, the acacia koa tree.
Soon Hawaiian makers emerged as well. One of the most well known in the early years was Jonah Kumalae and later Ernest Kaai. Soon after other Hawaiian makers started shops including the most well known and only one still in business today, Samuel Kamaka.
So how did all of this change Hawaiian music? It is interesting how the musical influence of the Mexican vaqueros set up a need for a more accessible and easier to play stringed instrument in Hawaii. You have to figure that after the vaqueros returned to Mexico and left their guitars here, there weren’t a large number of instruments available for the Hawaiian public. With no knowledge of how to build them or access to the wood-making tools needed to make such a detailed product, there were only a small number of instruments to go around. There may have been a few guitars brought here on whaling ships or by church missionaries, but considering there is little if any documentation of this and given the limited cargo space available on those long voyages, it is unlikely.
So while Hawaiians had created a specific style of singing and song composition based on the Mexican ranchera music and church hymns with roots in their native language and chants, they had no easily available instrument to play on. The ukulele was a perfect accompaniment: it was small, easy to play, and had a strong rhythmic quality that would support this new form of music developing here. They were also easy to build and not long after the Madeirans arrival here they were being produced in large numbers and for a relatively cheap price. Unlike the guitar which was large, hard to build and not easy to get, everyone began to play the ukulele. This made every Hawaiian a music maker. Anyone could get an ukulele and start writing and making music. With the spread of church culture and church-based education systems in Hawaii, singing and song composition were skills available and known to anyone. These combining factors allowed for a hotbed of new music emanating from Hawaii. All the stars were aligned for HO`ANALU… to go beyond known boundaries. Songs, lyrics, and melody could be created and shared by everyone with no limits placed on what was the norm or the accepted folk form. It was being created in real time without prejudice or bounds.
So that leads us to the million dollar question, where did the word “ukulele” come from? There are three main theories behind this. The most commonly shared one is that upon observing the playing style required by the fingers of the first Madeiran performers, the Hawaiians called it uku lele which would translate as “jumping flea,” as that is what the motion of the fingers on the strings resembled. A second theory is that uku lele stands for another translation of the terms uku for “gift” and lele for “flying.” This interpretation says the Hawaiians saw the ukulele as a gift that “flew” here from afar. And finally the third theory is that ukulele comes from a simple alteration of ukeke or a combination of ukeke and mele. Ukeke being the simple single stringed gourd harp native to Hawaii and mele meaning song.
We will never know for sure. It is common in the Hawaiian language to simply “hawaiianize” an outside word to fit it into the phonetic system of the Hawaiian language. See kika as a term for “guitar.” With braguinha and rajão neither really fits in nicely with any Hawaiian linguistic sounds or syllabic structure. Also, the original instrument was altered so it would make sense that a new term was necessary, not a hawaiianization of the original word. The “jumping flea” interpretation is plausible as Hawaiians also came up with terms for new items by describing the action being done or the event taking place with the new item, such as bicycle: ka`a hehi wāwae = “vehicle feet press.”
For the interpretation of uku lele as “flying gift” it is documented that this term was coined by Queen Liliuokalani. My interpretation is that looking for a more poetic and lofty description of this instrument, Liliuokalani devised her own interpretation of ukulele to fit in with her heightened view of Hawaiian music and musicians. Something that the term “jumping flea” did not accomplish.
As for the third theory, this one makes the most logical sense to me, but the linguistic history doesn’t support it. It is rare for Hawaiians to change a native word to fit in to describe a new item. While the ukeke does have a string on it making it somewhat similar to a ukulele, the similarities end there. They are completely different in size, use, and function. On top of that it is rare for the Hawaiians to alter a native word. The jump from ukeke to ukulele isn’t something that happens in the Hawaiian language. I can see the possibility of the name ukeke mele as the ukulele is like a musical, “song-y” variation of the single string ukeke, but there is no evidence of Hawaiians shortening or combining parts of two words to create a new word. Sometimes Hawaiian words get changed by non-native speakers when they are hard to pronounce, but because ukulele were being built and used in Hawaii by Hawaiians I don’t see how a bastardization of ukeke mele (if this is the actual source) would get changed to ukulele.
So I think it is a combination of all of these. The Hawaiians were very fond of word puns and subtle relationships between words. Word play was common and similarities between sounds and meaning were often explored and appreciated for the possible variation in meaning and interpretation. With only 13 letters and limited rules for syllabic structure, this was necessary to create a diverse language to describe the diverse world and world view available to the Hawaiian speaker. So the fact that ukulele filled three functions, described the manner in which it is played, gave it a poetic description and also subtly referenced the only known stringed instrument in pre-contact Hawaii. Ukulele was the perfect fit!
Dagan Bernstein is a musician and educator from Waimea on Hawaii Island, the birthplace of the Hawaiian cowboy or paniolo. You can find his album of original music Paniolo Music on iTunes as well as read his writing on cultivating understanding of the musical history of Hawai’i through his blog.