BY JIM TRANQUADA | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE
I’m convinced that it was childcare issues that determined who was the first person to play the ukulele in Hawaii—or more accurately, what was destined to become the ukulele. When the British barque Ravenscrag and its cargo of Madeiran contract workers arrived in Honolulu harbor in August 1879, my great-great grandfather Augusto Dias and his fellow passengers Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espirito Santo had their hands full. The three men and their wives all had four children apiece to look after, ranging in age from 12 years to six months. João Fernandes and his wife Carolina had just one child, a 7-month-old daughter, so he was free to grab a machete from the reportedly bashful bachelor João Gomes da Silva and sing and play his way into history.
That children played a key role in the introduction of what has often been described as a baby guitar seems appropriate as we celebrate the 140th anniversary of the arrival of the ukulele. But the rapid adoption of the machete by kanaka maoli—native Hawaiians—over the subsequent decade gives an impression of inevitability that is misleading. As the Ravenscrag’s 427 passengers were escorted off the ship and into the quarantine station in the harbor, there was nothing certain about their future. Although recruited as contract workers for the islands’ booming sugar plantations, more than half of the new arrivals were natives of the city of Funchal, Madeira’s capital. These life-long city dwellers were completely unprepared for plantation life—so much so, that planters frequently balked at employing any subsequent emigrants from Madeira.
Scattered to plantations on the Big Island, Kauai, and Maui, my great-great grandfather and his colleagues were classic examples of this mismatch. All three were trained as marceneiros, or cabinetmakers, and they returned to city life in Honolulu, no doubt with a great sense of relief, as soon as their contracts were up and resumed what they would have regarded as their real profession. By 1885, each had taken the entrepreneurial route and opened up small shops where they made and sold stringed instruments, including the machete.
Just three years later, a first-time American visitor on an interisland steamer described how native Hawaiians camped out on deck sleeping, smoking, and playing the ukulele or taro patch fiddle—“the national instrument of Hawaii.” Contemporary travel accounts by tourists and stories in Honolulu newspapers make it fairly easy to form an idea of how quickly the popularity of the diminutive four-string instrument spread. Far less clear is what the ukulele being played aboard the steamer Kinau—all of which would have been made by Dias, Santo, or Nunes—looked like compared to today’s standard models.
In an effort to get a better idea, I have been trying to track down examples of Dias ukuleles for the past 20 years. Thus far I have been able to find an even dozen, most of them now in private collections and all of them made prior to 1900. That search has underlined the relative rarity of all pre-1900 instruments and the many unanswered questions that remain about the evolution of the machete into the ukulele. The reasons for their scarcity are many. Until Manuel Nunes—the most successful of the original makers—formed M. Nunes & Sons in 1909, ukulele manufacturing was a boutique business where mass production techniques were unknown. Annual production levels must have been low, given that ukulele manufacturing was not a full-time job. To make ends meet, Dias, Nunes and Santo repaired everything from mandolins to violins, bought and sold used instruments, strings and pegs, and combined lutherie (they also made a small number of guitars) with furniture-making and other forms of woodworking. (In 1889, for example, Nunes proudly displayed an inlaid koa photo album he had made in a local photographer’s studio.)
As immigrants with little capital, Dias, Nunes, and Santo all opened for business in Chinatown, the city’s worst slum, where “dwelling houses, pig-sties, privies, fowl-yards, cess-pools and accumulations of all sorts of refuse were huddled together with a degree of ingenuity that was simply wonderful,” as the [Honolulu] Daily Bulletin described it in 1886.
This meant the three men lost everything in two devastating fires that reduced the neighborhood to ashes, the first in April 1886 when a cookhouse fire got out of control, and the second in January 1900, when the Board of Health’s efforts to contain a frightening outbreak of bubonic plague by burning buildings where victims of the epidemic had been found went tragically wrong. My great-great grandfather was particularly unlucky—a burglar unsuccessfully tried to set his Nuuanu Street shop on fire in 1894, and another fire of unknown origin in 1910 wiped out his inventory for a third time. I’ve always blamed the stress of losing everything in the 1886 fire for his being brought up on assault and battery charges that July after shoving a man through a storefront window during an argument. (His nickname, “O Santinho,” or the little saint, was intended to be ironic.) One can only imagine how many early instruments were lost in these conflagrations.
Unlike the Kamakas, who began building ukuleles in 1916 and continue today, none of the three original makers managed to launch a successful multi-generational family business, despite their large families. Santo’s business died with him when he passed away suddenly of blood poisoning in 1905; my great-great grandfather, having lost his shop in the 1910 fire and suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as tuberculosis, stopped working around that time; and M. Nunes & Sons appears to have closed its doors around 1918, when it disappears from the Honolulu city directory. (Leonardo Nunes, Manuel’s son, who began manufacturing ukuleles in Los Angeles around 1913, continued to produce well-regarded instruments until 1930.) In contrast to the wealth of information available in the archives of C.F. Martin & Co., no documentation survives for any of the three—not surprising, given the fact that the vast majority of Madeiran immigrants were illiterate. When he signed a loyalty oath to the new Provisional Government in 1894 after the overthrow of Hawaii’s monarchy, my great-great grandfather managed to sign “A Dias” in a crabbed hand; Santo signed his with his mark—an “X.” In the absence of any kind of production records or catalogs, we are forced to rely on the few instruments that remain.
It never would have occurred to the early makers to use serial numbers, and while a number of surviving instruments have soundhole labels, they are of little help in determining a date of manufacture. For reasons that are still not clear, Dias, Nunes, and Santo moved their shops frequently. According to city directories and newspaper ads, my great-great grandfather had at least 12 different addresses in the 16 years between 1884 and 1900, while Santo had at least nine and Nunes four or five. As a result, as a practical matter they often used generic labels without a street address. Dias labels for this period invariably proclaim: ADDRESS/A. DIAS & CO., Guitar Maker,/Violins and Guitars Repaired/Reasonable Rates/ HONOLULU H.I. (Why the word “Address” appears at the top is a mystery. My great-grandfather spoke Portuguese and Hawaiian but not English; it’s possible that the word appears as a result of a misunderstanding with the printer.) Santo had a label that gave his address as early as ca. 1890, but his other labels do not always include this information. Nunes labels regularly give his address starting around 1898, but identify him as a “guitar maker and repairer.” It wasn’t until around 1909 that Nunes labels began to identify him as “Inventor of the Ukulele and Taro Patch Fiddle in 1879”—the first known instance in which any of the original three makers identify themselves primarily as a ukulele maker.
Because early examples are scarce, it’s hard to tell what a typical ukulele design of the 1880s or early 1890s might be. For example, a good number of surviving examples have elaborate rope bindings and rosettes with a matching backstrip, endstrip, and inlay that runs up the middle of the fingerboard and peghead. Is this typical, or did these instruments survive precisely because they are more elaborately decorated and thus more highly valued? What appear to be among the earliest examples display traditional 19th century Madeirense features: pine or fir soundboards, extended 17-fret fingerboards with a figure-eight (oito) peghead, and button bridges, sometimes with buttons inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Two early Dias instruments—a ukulele and a five-string rajão—have floral inlays on the lower bout, something often seen on 19th century Madeiran instruments. What seems to be atypical is the remarkable variety of peghead designs on early ukuleles, including some Dias designs that are reminiscent of kapu sticks, a figure-eight with a slot at the top, and elaborately scrolled Santo designs that appear to have been borrowed from American banjos. The classic crown peghead seen on millions of later ukuleles didn’t make its appearance until late in the 1890s, judging from surviving examples.
Even with all these variations, a careful examination of early instruments makes it clear that no one invented the ukulele, despite the many claims made and repeated over the past century. The physical dimensions of the Madeiran machete and the Hawaiian ukulele are virtually identical, and the evidence shows that the various design elements simply evolved over time. The great innovation of the early makers was to build instruments entirely out of koa, the large evergreen hardwood unique to Hawaii and closely associated with the Hawaiian monarchy. Despite the greater cost of koa and its then-unconventional sound, koa appealed to the ardent patriotism of the kanaka maoli at a time of great political turmoil when the fate of monarchy and the independence of Hawaii were at stake.
Meanwhile, the search continues for other examples of the earliest ukulele, which can turn up in the most unexpected places. One Dias was recently donated to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu after making an appearance on Antiques Roadshow in San Jose and being appraised by Richard Johnston of Palo Alto’s Gryphon Stringed Instruments. One collector found a ca. 1886 Dias at a Long Beach flea market; another bought his Dias at a guitar show from a dealer who had picked it up at an estate sale in Memphis, Tennessee. One lucky Maryland musician was playing the banjo at his aunt’s 50th birthday party “and a lady there was so impressed that she gave me three instruments—and one of them was your great-great grandfather’s ukulele,” he told me. The only traces of yet another Dias currently exist only in a trio of hasty cellphone photos taken by the late dealer Michael Aratani, aka MusicGuyMic of Kaneohe—photos that served as the basis for a re-creation by master luthier Dave Means. “It was for sale years ago and I wasn’t in the position to pay that kind of money for it but did manage to take a few quick photos … I have since spent years trying to track it down but no luck,” Mike explained in 2008.
Only one Dias ukulele remains in the family—a soprano made in 1894 for his oldest grandson, Charlie Gilliland, who carefully typed a note to make its provenance clear. It’s made out of spectacular flamed koa, front and back, with a figure-eight peghead, and rope binding and fingerboard inlay. While not in original condition—it has a newer bridge and mechanical tuners have replaced the original wooden pegs—it’s one of the few early survivors that’s in playable condition.
Strumming on this remarkable family heirloom, I think of my grandfather, who in 1925 transferred from the University of Hawaii to Pomona College just east of Los Angeles. One of his many jobs while working his way through Pomona was playing ukulele and guitar in a Hawaiian trio organized by one of his cousins from Hilo. His ukulele was a Dias. “I don’t know what happened to it,” he told me years later. “I gave it away. It wasn’t that meaningful—it was just a ukulele.”
Jim Tranquada is director of communications for Occidental College in Los Angeles and the co-author of The ’Ukulele: A History along with John King.