By Sandor Nagyszalanczy

The Birth of the Ukulele

“When did the Hawaiians invent the ukulele?” a friend of mine asked as I was giving her a tour of my collection of 430-plus vintage ukes.

The belief that Hawaii lays sole claim to the ukulele—the instrument that would seem to have grown up over centuries in relative obscurity among the descendants of the Polynesians—is a widely held misconception, and one that I’ve often been obliged to dispel. In fact, I informed her, the earliest ukes only date back to the mid-1880s. Then, pausing for effect, I added: “And they weren’t invented by the Hawaiians.” Looking like a six year old who has learned that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, my confused friend furrowed her brow and considered the ukuleles hanging on my wall anew. True, the actual history of the ukulele begins on an island, but not one in the Hawaiian chain, nor one in the Pacific Ocean, for that matter. Madeira, a small mountainous speck of land in the Atlantic southeast of Portugal, about a 350-mile swim from the coast of North Africa, is the actual birthplace of the beloved uke.

Not unlike the Hawaiian Islands, Madeira has a tropical climate and is part of a volcanic archipelago. The heavily forested island (Madeira means “wood” in Portuguese) once had a thriving timber industry and a long history of furniture making. But it’s probably best known for Madeira wine, the fortified, sherry-like beverage that became popular because it didn’t spoil on long sea voyages. Grape growing and winemaking have been a staple industry there since the 16th century. 

Two centuries ago, Madeira was also a popular tourist spot for European visitors who were drawn to its picturesque landscapes and exotic flora. Visitors were often entertained by music played in the streets of Funchal, the island’s bustling port city. Because there were no encased windows on the houses in this hot climate, it must have been difficult to not hear strains of music, both day and night. Local musicians strummed waltzes, mazurkas, and folk tunes on the Spanish guitar and a small, guitar-like, four-string instrument called the machête (pronounced “ma-CHET”), also known as the braguinha or the “machéte de Braga” after the city in northern Portugal where the instrument originated.

Unfortunately, by the mid 1800s, Madeira wasn’t such a great place to be. Poverty, famine, and a series of natural disasters that led to the collapse of the wine industry made the island a better place to escape from than to. Scores of unemployed Madeirans sought to leave their overcrowded homeland and launch a new life elsewhere. It just so happened that as things were going wrong in Madeira, life was flourishing half a world away, in the Sandwich Islands—as the Hawaiian Islands were commonly known then—where the sugar industry was booming.

In 1874, Hawaiian planters shipped 25 tons of sugar to the mainland alone. But there was a problem: After decades of European colonization and introduced diseases, the native population was in decline, so there weren’t enough workers to man the plantations and factories. Desperation led planters to a worldwide search for labor, a search that eventually reached the Portuguese islands. Madeiran officials had no trouble finding men and women who were willing to sign three-year contracts to labor in the fields. In addition to wages of $6 to $10 a month, indentured emigrants would be provided room and board, as well as sailing passage to their new Pacific promised land.

Among the more than 25,000 Madeirans who came to Hawaii in the late 1800s, there were three woodworkers from Funchal: 40-year-old Manuel Nunes, 37-year-old Augusto Dias, and 28-year-old Jose do Espirito Santo. Joined by their families, the men packed aboard the 220-foot-long British clipper ship SS Ravenscrag, and embarked on the arduous four-month-long, 12,000 mile ocean journey to Oahu. Little did they know that this new adventure would not only bring them prosperity, but would lead to the creation of a new instrument.

Manuel Nunes, Maderian woodworker and one of the pioneers of the Hawaiian ukulele

Manuel Nunes, Maderian woodworker and one of the pioneers of the Hawaiian ukulele

The poor, sea-weary immigrants finally arrived in Honolulu Harbor on a quiet Saturday in August of 1879. No sooner had they docked, when one of the passengers, an accomplished musician named Joao Fernandes, launched into a joyous song and dance to celebrate the ship’s safe arrival. Fernandes, a talented player who could reel off any song he’d heard only once, performed on a machête borrowed from a fellow passenger. He had also entertained the passengers during the long sea voyage, plucking out each song’s melody while the strumming the chords. Evidently, he wasn’t the only one who could play the instrument. Just a couple of weeks after the Ravenscrag’s arrival, the following item ran in the Hawaiian Gazette on September 3, 1879: “…Madeira Islanders recently arrived here have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The [m]usicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels.”

Nunes, Dias, and Santo went to work on sugar plantations on Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. After they’d fulfilled their contractual obligations, all three headed straight for Honolulu, the kingdom’s capital and center of commerce, with the ambition of returning to their former professions in woodworking. Fortunately for them, Honolulu had a flourishing furniture trade at the time, with more than a dozen local woodworking businesses. Nunes and Santo got jobs at Hawaii’s largest furniture store, the Pioneer Furniture House. Dias set up his own small woodworking shop in 1884, settling in Honolulu’s seedy, low-rent Chinatown district. He made not only furniture, but also musical instruments.

Within a year, Nunes had opened his own shop just three blocks away and both Diaz and Nunes were advertising their businesses in the local newspapers. Dias described himself as a “maker of guitars, machêtes, and all stringed instruments.” Nunes announced his business as a “cabinetmaker’s shop of stringed instruments, guitars and machêtes.”

A machete made on the island of Madeira by Octavianno Joao Nunes da Paixao (1812–1874), one of Madeira’s most accomplished instrument makers

A machete made on the island of Madeira by Octavianno Joao Nunes da Paixao (1812–1874), one of Madeira’s most accomplished instrument makers

Santo soon followed suit, opening his shop just a few doors down from Nunes.

In addition to building instruments, all three eked out a living by reselling commercially-made instruments, doing repair work, selling strings, and so on. Dias even gave music lessons.

How did these three simple Madeiran woodworkers suddenly become luthiers? It’s unclear whether any of them had ever even built an instrument before coming to Hawaii. There’s some speculation (but no evidence) that Nunes may have been related to Octavianno Joao Nunes da Paixao (1812–1874), one of Madeira’s most accomplished instrument makers. The most likely explanation is that Nunes, Dias, and Santo all started building instruments while still pursuing general woodworking jobs, probably as a side business to earn extra money. Despite their lack of formal lutherie training, it’s clear from the quality of the instruments they built that these Madeirans knew what they were doing.

The first printed mention of an instrument clearly identified as a ukulele came just a decade after the Ravenscrag came to Oahu. So who actually built the first one? The honest answer is no one really knows! All three woodworkers built machêtes that looked a lot like ukuleles, and Santo advertised that he could “make guitars of all sizes.” Nunes claimed that he had invented the ukulele, boldly announcing this in newspaper ads and on his instrument labels.

Whatever part Nunes or Dias or Santo may have had on the creation of the uke, it’s most likely that the first true ukuleles were hybrid instruments: a mash up of the machête and another smallish Portuguese instrument, the five-string rajão (pronounced rah-ZHOW). The petite size and body outline of the machête, as well as its 17-fret fingerboard provided the basis for the ukuleles’ overall shape and configuration. But the machete’s D-G-B-D tuning wasn’t used. Instead, the ukulele employed the tuning of the rajão’s top four strings: G-C-E-A, minus its fifth string (a low D).

Why use this tuning?

“When and why [the tuning] was changed to my-dog-has-fleas is one of those little mysteries that always leads to more questions than answers,” the late-great musical historian John King wrote in his 2012 book The Ukulele: A History (University of Hawaii Press). Another important element that distinguishes Hawaiian ukuleles from their Portuguese brethren is the material they’re made from. Machétes and rajãos are typically built with spruce tops and bodies made of juniper and other light woods. Virtually all early ukuleles were made entirely from koa, a golden honey-brown wood prized by the Hawaiians and traditionally used for furniture and all manner of quality goods. Ukuleles, such as the one made by Jose do Espirito Santo, were, by and large, crafted from highly figured koa, and often had the same kinds of ornate decorations found on machêtes. Their tops and bodies are so eggshell-thin that these ukes are incredibly light and produce a great deal of sound for their diminutive size.

Having a unique name is something else that helps distinguish early ukuleles from other instruments, but exactly how the uke got its name is another mystery. There are many stories out there, but here’s one sensible explanation: Hawaii actually had the word “ukulele” before they had the instrument. An 1865 dictionary defined the word as “a cat flea,” a pest that had found its way to the islands decades earlier. Around 1900, novelist Jack London wrote that the ukulele was “the Hawaiian (word) for ‘jumping flea’ as it is also a certain musical instrument that may be likened to a young guitar.”

Six years later, the virtuoso uke player and teacher Ernest Kaai wrote in his ukulele instruction book that “the Hawaiians have a way of playing all over the strings . . . hence the name ukulele.”

Whatever the exact etymology of the word, the appeal for the instrument spread quickly, thanks, in part, to one of its earliest champions: David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king. Kalakaua, his Queen Emma, and the future queen Lili’uokalani (who composed “Aloha Oe,” that most sacred of Hawaiian songs) were all accomplished musicians and patrons of the arts. Their support and promotion of the ukulele encouraged other Hawaiians to take up the instrument and develop their own music and styles. In addition to featuring the ukulele at royal events, Kalakaua learned to play the uke himself and often included ukulele performances at his own informal gatherings.

David Kalakaua, the last King of Hawaii and early champion of the ukulele

David Kalakaua, the last King of Hawaii and early champion of the ukulele

‘”We would go to the King’s bungalow,” musician Joao Fernandes told Paradise of the Pacific magazine in 1922, recounting Kalakaua’s parties, “Lots of people came. Plenty kanakas (native Hawaiians). Much music, much hula, much kaukau [slang for “food”], much drink. All time plenty drink. And King Kalakaua, he pay for all!’’

Clearly, King David earned the nickname by which he’s still celebrated today: “The Merrie Monarch.” As a new generation of Hawaiian ukulele makers set up shop—including Jonas Kumulae, who would bring the uke to the attention of mainlanders at San Francisco’s 1915 Pan Pacific International Exhibition and spark the world’s first uke craze—the original luthiers slowly faded into obscurity. By 1900, Santo had closed his shop, but continued to work at home for a few more years before he died. Dias lost his shop in a devastating fire that destroyed much of Honolulu’s Chinatown that same year. Nunes, the most prolific luthier of the three, continued building instruments for many years. He taught the art of ukulele making to numerous craftsmen, including his son Leonardo, who ran the Nunes factory in Los Angeles until 1930. Another of Manuel’s apprentices, Samuel Kamaka, started his own one-man shop in 1916.

Now, nearly 100 years later, the Kamaka Ukulele and Guitar Works on South Street in Honolulu carries on the legacy of three Portuguese emigrants who forever changed Hawaiian music and gave the world the gift of the “jumping flea.”

Sandor Nagyszalanczy is an avid ukulele collector and woodworking expert residing in Santa Cruz, California.


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Ukulele magazine.
Click here for more on that issue.

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