The stringed instruments that define so much Hawaiian music all came from somewhere else — and not very long ago. In the case of the ukulele, that was from Portugal's Madeira Islands. Hawaii's King David Kalakaua embraced the four-stringed instrument after it arrived about 1879, and the rest kind of is history, as Los Angeles writer Swati Pandey explores at the Daily. (And overcoming the comic overtones that attached through decades of vaudeville, stand-up and gimmick acts like Tiny Tim.)
Kalakaua took an immediate liking to the instrument that, with adjusted tuning and a longer body, became the ukulele, that melancholy yet happy, tinny yet soulful instrument. A few migrants began to craft the instruments from Hawaii’s rich red-brown koa wood. Kalakaua insisted it be played at his legendary royal parties (he was called the “merry monarch” with good reason). He encouraged the instrument’s incorporation into traditional Hawaiian music, which Kalakaua was trying to revive. His sister Liliuokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii, even played a ukulele version of her anthemic song, “Aloha Oe.”
Kalakaua’s efforts worked. The ukulele assimilated to its new home so seamlessly that its Atlantic roots are often forgotten, even if they’re preserved in the name. “Ukulele,” though it can mean “jumping flea,” has a rival translation: “a gift that has come.”
But the ukulele’s appeal transcended the exotic. It was portable and cheap — a true people’s instrument....What made the ukulele most popular was its simplicity. Few picked it up with the intent to reach some virtuosic height. The instrument was rarely the star — it was accompaniment to a voice, a campfire chorus, park playground noise. In 1922, one music industry trade publication feared a ukulele shortage because of the summer season. (One can’t imagine a seasonal violin shortage.) Advertisements promised, “Popularity follows the ukulele.” (Again, not so of the violin.) One Cosmopolitan story described a girl who could smoke a cigarette, sing and play the uke at the same time, all while floating in a pool. The ukulele was an accessory. It was not often a canvas for great art. But it was expressive, romantic, and nostalgic of the idea of Hawaii — of a near but still far-off tropic, of summer loves and lost kingdoms.
For anyone who doubts the soul of a uke in serious hands, try a little Israel Kamakawiwo'ole.
Or you can skip directly to Aunty Geona.
While we're on Hawaii culture: Kalakaua, the last of the kings of Hawaii (he died in San Francisco in 1891), was known as the Merrie Monarch. An annual Merrie Monarch festival in Hilo every Easter week celebrates the old music and brings hula schools (or halau) from California and Japan to perform alongside the best of the Hawaiians. Before the ukulele and the guitar (brought to the islands from Mexico), the hula was accompanied by drums and gourds. Below is this year's winning traditional hula, performed by Rebecca Lilinoekekapahauomaunakea Sterling.