A Little Uke History....

"Hawaiian Nights", by John Kelly


When the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu on the afternoon of August 23, 1879, it was carrying 419 Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira to work in the sugar cane fields. It had been a long and hard journey of over 4 months and some 15,000 miles. In celebration of their arrival, Joao Fernandes borrowed his friend's braguinha, jumped off the ship, and started playing folks songs from his native land on the wharf. The Hawaiians who came down to the dock were very impressed at the speed of this musicians' fingers as they danced across the fingerboard and they called the instrument "ukulele", which translates into English as "jumping flea". You see, that was the image conjured up by those flying fingers.

At least that's one of the stories about the origin of the name "ukulele". Typical to much of Hawaiian history, there are several accounts of how the ukulele got it's name. Queen Lili'uokalani thought it came from the Hawaiian words for "the gift that came here", or "uku" (gift or reward) and "lele" (to come). Another legend says the instrument was originally called "ukeke lele" or "dancing ukeke" (ukeke being the Hawaiian's three stringed musical bow). The name, being mispronounced over the years, became "ukulele". Another theory comes from a story about Edward Purvis, an English army officer and the Assistant Chamberlain to the court of King David Kalakaua, who was very adept at playing the braguinha. Since he was small and sprightly, the rather large Hawaiians nicknamed him "ukulele", the whole "jumping flea" thing all over again. Still another version of the origin of the world "ukulele" is attributed to Gabriel Davian and Judge W. L. Wilcox, who was a member of a well-known island family. According to the story, the two men were in attendance at a housewarming party at the Wilcox home in Kahili, where Davian was playing an 'ukulele he had made himself. When one of the guests asked what it was called, Davion jokingly replied that, judging from the way one "scratched at it," it was a "jumping flea". Wilcox, who was fluent in Hawaiian, was asked for the Hawaiian translation and is supposed to have answered, "'Ukulele!".

Over the years, the "jumping flea" legend, the one where Joao Fernandes' fingers were jumping like fleas over the fingerboard, has become the most accepted, probably because that is the coolest story and Hawaiians just love a cool story.


The Hawaiian people took to the ukulele very fast and within 10 years it had become Hawaii's most popular instrument. Much of this can be attributed to Joao Fernandes, the original fellow who jumped off the boat playing his home town folk songs. The story goes that he spent most of his time walking around Honolulu playing his ukulele, spending so much time at this, in fact, that his wife complained! The Hawaiians, who had by now become familiar with the sounds of guitars and other stringed instruments, liked what they heard. They became not only listeners, but students as well. Additionally, the ukulele was easy to learn to play and very portable.

Joao Fernandes

Also thanks to Fernandes, King David Kalakaua heard the wonderful music from this small instrument and learned to play it. Fernandes recalled how he and his friends would go to the king's bungalow where there were "plenny kanakas (Hawaiians), much music, much hula, much kaukau (food), and much drink. All time plenny drink and King Kalakaua, he pay for all." The king designed and played his own instruments, learning from Augusto Dias, at whose shop he was a frequent visitor. He was one of Dias' most ardent patrons and even gave him permission to use the royal seal on every ukulele he made.

Besides Kalakaua, other noble ali'i who played the ukulele were Queen Emma, Queen Lili'uokalani, Prince Leleiohoku, and Princess Likelike. With such royal involvement, it was inevitable that the ukulele would be accepted by the people, so much so that it long ago lost whatever royal aura it may have had and has indeed become the "people's instrument". By the late 19th Century, every Hawaiian music lover was strumming his own ukulele - from taro farmers to fishermen as well as Kings and Queens.

The Hawaiian Quintet, circa 1915

Since the popularity of the ukulele depended on them being around for everybody, manufacturing ukuleles was an important element in it's success story. On the original immigrant boat, Ravenscrag , there were several Portuguese who were capable of making musical instruments; Augusto Dias, Jose do Espirito Santo, and Manuel Nunes. In 1884, Dias opened a small shop on King Street for manufacturing and repairing musical instruments, especially guitars and ukuleles. Four years later, both Santos and Nunes had opened shop. Of these, the most successful seems to have been Nunes, as he and his son Leonardo were making ukuleles into the 1930s.

Manuel Nunes

Eventually, special wood cutting and wood shaping machines were developed to make ukuleles, but the early process of making them was a painstaking art, requiring many hours of work and all hand-made. How many ukuleles were made this way is unknown, but it would appear that the number was not great until the 1910s when productivity accelerated through the use of more modern equipment. The cost of a ukulele at this time was between $3 and $5, a considerable sum when you consider many people in those days only made $5 per month. Many people who could not afford a ukulele made their own out of coconut shell halves, cigar boxes, and other unusual material.


Bing Crosby stummin' away with Waikiki beachboys (from left)Pua Kealoha, Chick Daniels, and Joe Minor.

No one epitomized the Hawaiian lifestyle more then the Waikiki beachboys. These men have lived and worked on the Beach at Waikiki from the early part of this century to the present day. But the heyday of the beachboy was the 1920s and 1930s, when Hawaii was still a far off dream for most and the Beach at Waikiki represented a place of mystery and romance. Just the word beachboy conjures up the romantic past: a luxurious pink hotel; tandem surfing on huge, koa-wood boards; nicknames like Splash, Chick, Duke, Turkey Love, and Steamboat; and ukulele music playing late into the night under a full moon. This all happened at a beach once described as "curving in a gentle, flesh-covered arc toward Diamond Head".

During the filming of Bird of Paradise in 1931, beachboy Chick Daniels entertains movie stars Joel McCrea and Dolores Del Rio.

Many of the Waikiki beachboys were excellent musicians and composers, including Melvin Paoa, Squeeze Kamana, Pua Kealoha, Chick Daniels and Splash and Freckles Lyons. Legendary beachboy parties were held in the 1920s at the Moana pier (which jutted out from the beach at the Moana Hotel), where from sundown to sunup the beachboys would strum their ukuleles and sing Hawaiian songs.

Beachboy Panama Dave Baptiste and Mickey Rooney strum away in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Some of the more famous ukulele beachboys: Squeeze Kamana; most beachboys could strum a uke, but Squeeze was extaordinary. He was trained at a music school in St. Louis. When he came back home, he entertained on the Matson ships. He then went to Hollywood and played as a musician there. Coming back home, he joined Al Kealoha Perry and the Singing Surfriders, a group which eventually became the house band for the Hawaii Calls radio shows. Squeeze, being an incredible soloist, chould finger chords with his left hand cupped from above as well as below the neck. He could even show off more by playing the uke behind his head!

Chick Daniels, the head beachboy at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for over 50 years, serenaded guests on the sand by day and performed at night with his band, the Royal Hawaiians. He not only performed in Hawaii, but also in Hollywood and on Arthur Godfrey's radio show in New York. Chick was renowned for his "pants-dropping" hula, where he would get up and dance to a quick Hawaiian tune and at the end drop his pants (usually wearing underwear, but one time he forgot he had no underwear on!).

Beachboy Chick Daniels serenades guests at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

The Waikiki Beachboys, circa 1963

More ukulele history here.

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