History of the Ukulele

The ‘ukulele’s invention dates back to 1879, when Portuguese immigrants brought several small guitars, including the braguinha, to Hawai‘i. More than 400 Portuguese immigrants arrived at Honolulu Harbor aboard the Ravenscrag from Madeira to work in the sugarcane fields. According to some accounts, one of the passengers aboard the Ravenscrag was musician Joao Fernandes who was so happy to reach Honolulu after an exhausting, four-month journey, that he borrowed another passenger’s braguinha and began playing Portuguese music. Others joined Fernandes with song and dance to the delight of Hawaiian bystanders, who marveled at how his fingers jumped like fleas across the fingerboard, thus calling the instrument ‘ukulele, which translates to “jumping flea.”

The ‘ukulele became popular with the people of Hawai‘i almost immediately after its arrival in the islands, including King David Kalakaua, Hawai‘i’s Merrie Monarch, who was an accomplished guitarist and musician and the driving force behind the revival of hula. King Kalakaua loved the ‘ukulele and is credited with changing the tempo, which thus became contemporary Hawaiian music for hula ‘auana (modern hula).

Today, the ‘ukulele has become the most celebrated musical instrument in the Hawaiian Islands and its popularity has expanded beyond these shores. Hawaii’s Ukulele Festivals on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island as well as many ‘ukulele manufacturers and musicians continue the legacy of the Portuguese immigrants who forever changed Hawaiian music and gave the world the gift of the “jumping flea.”

(Source: The ‘Ukulele: A Portuguese Gift to Hawaii by John Henry Felix, Leslie Nunes and Peter F. Senecal, 1980)





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