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Entertainment :: Music :: Ke Mele Hawai`i :: The `Ukulele

The `Ukulele

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Although the `ukulele has only been a part of Hawaiian music for a little over a hundred years, it has not only made its mark in Island music but has helped to put Hawai`i on the map - the world over.

Kalakaua played `ukulele. So did Queens Emma and Lili`uokalani, Prince Leleiohoku, and Princess Likelike.

By the late 1800s, less than 20 years after its arrival, the tiny little immigrant, originally called pila li`ili`i (little fiddle) had found its way to the U.S. Mainland.

Soon, there was a "yukalele craze" - a fad - all over America. Young men put on bear skin coats and, `ukulele in hand, they took their best girls for a canoe ride onto the lake, and serenaded them, accompanying themselves on their `ukuleles. It was the thing to do. They didn't sing and play Hawaiian songs, but found that there were hundreds of great songs that were very easy to play on the little four-string instrument.

Chord books came out, some from prominent musicians and major publishing houses. The `ukulele even became popular in vaudeville theater.

And back home in the islands, it became the instrument of choice for instructors in a growing number of hula studios.

Most people know that the instrument was introduced to Hawai`i in 1878 by the Portuguese and was known as the braguinha. Joao de Freitas brought the first one to the Islands, but no one on that ship could play it. In 1879, another group of Portuguese arrived, and there were more of the instruments and musicians who could play and make them - Joao Ferandes, Joao Luiz Correa, Augusto Dias, Jose de Espirito Santo, and Manuel Nunes.

Music stores were selling them in the early 1900s, and in 1916, Sam Kamaka started what would be the premier `ukulele manufacturing business in the Islands. Ninety years later, the Kamaka family is still making them, all by hand. And, although there are many fine `ukulele makers in the Islands now, Kamaka is still the instrument of choice for most professionals.

Ernest Kaai, probably the first Hawaiian virtuoso of the `ukulele, also published a book of `ukulele melodies, history, and more. Toots Paka helped popularize the instrument while touring with her husband, July Paka, and his Hawaiian revue. Soon publishers began to include `ukulele chords in their song books. Of course, Arthur Godfrey (and Haleloke) did a lot to promote both Hawai`i and the `ukulele - to millions of Americans.

Johnny Almeida, and other skilled Hawaiian musicians often tuned their instruments like the strings of a violin or mandolin for ease in switching from one instrument to the other.

Names that are legendary in terms of their musicianship, include Almeida, Jesse Kalima, Eddie Kamae, Lyle Ritz, Kahauanu Lake, Herb Ohta, Andy Cummings, Randy Oness, Poncie Ponce, and Nelson Waikiki, to name a few.

Ask anyone about "kings" of the `ukulele and you will hear such names as Kamae, Kalima, Lake, Gordon Mark, Eddie Bush, Led Ka`apana, Bill Tapia, Moe Keale.

It is impossible to name all of those who have helped boost the popularity of the instrument, or even those who have achieved some degree of fame playing or teaching it. They are legion.

`Ukulele clubs abound - in US, Japan, and elsewhere. We recently heard the Silver Strings, a youth band of `ukulele players from Canada, sharing the honors with the Keiki Palaka Band, under the direction of Mel Murata. Abd there are `ukulele festivals in many cities, as far away as New York.

Jake Shimabukuro and Brittni Paiva, Two of the young current stars of the `ukulele
Jake Shimabukuro and Brittni Paiva, Two of the young current stars of the `ukulele

Today, when you mention `ukulele, fans will mention a whole new generation of musicians with names such as Jake Shimabukuro and his brother, Bruce Shimabukuro; Brittni Paiva, David Kamakahi, Bryan Tolentino, Herb Ohta, Jr. , Kelly DeLima, Troy Fernandez, Paul Martinez, Daniel Ho. In Japan, pickers like Yoshio Owa, and Agnes Kimura are among the best.

Agnes Kimura, slack-key guitar giant and one of Japan's top `ukulele players and teachers.
Agnes Kimura, slack-key guitar giant and one of Japan's top `ukulele players and teachers.

The 36th Annual `Ukulele Festival will be held July 30, 2006, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m., at the Kapi`olani Park Bandstand. It's FREE and open to the public. Danny Kaleikini has been the official emcee for more than 25 years.

Danny Kaleikini strumming an `ukulele and singing at a 1963 lu`au in Japan - Photo by Keith Haugen
Danny Kaleikini strumming an `ukulele and singing at a 1963 lu`au in Japan - Photo by Keith Haugen

Here's a list of musicians who have performed in the festival's first 35 years.

Amy Hanaialii Gilliom
Arthur Edwards
Bill Kaiwa
Bla Pahinui
Daniel Ho
Derek Nuuhiwa
Eddie Bush
Ernie Cruz, Jr.
Gabe Baltazar
Halau Hula Olana
Imua Garza
Israel Kamakawiwoole
Jesse Kalima
Keale Ohana
Keoki Kahumoku & Herb Ohta. Jr.
Ledward Kaapana
Lyle Ritz
Mel Cabang
Mike Okuda
Moroni Medeiros
Pure Heart
Raiatea Helm
Rocky Brown
Shawn Ishimoto
The Termites
Troy Fernandez
Valley Boys
Wilson Kanakaole
Andy Cummings
Audy Kimura
Bill Tapia
Chris Kamaka
Dave Kapahulehua
Don Baduria
Eddie Kamae
Frank DeLima
Gordon Mark
Jake Shimabukuro
Jesse Nakooka
Ka'au Crater Boys
Karen Keawehawaii
Kealii Reichel
Leilani Lee
Mana'o Company
Melveen Leed
Moe Keale
Myrtle K. Hilo
Rachel Gonzales
Robi Kahakalau
Sam Ahia
The Out Takes
Tony Bee
Uluwehi Guerrero
Willie K

Everyone is familiar with the annual `Ukulele Festival at Kapi`olani Park, where hundreds of players, most of them students of Roy Sakuma, perhaps the top `ukulele school in the world, put on a free show.

Annual 36th Annual `Ukulele Festival web site

Author George S. Kanahele wrote that Kamae was the "prime innovative force," in the development of `ukulele styles. "His goal was to exploit to the fullest all of the `ukulele's capabilities," Kanahele wrote. "To do that, Kamae learned to play non-Hawaiian songs on the instrument, and introduced Latin rhythms like tango and rhumba to the `ukulele repertoire. Like Kalima, he developed a technique of plucking all four strings simultaneously, so you could hear both melody and chords at the same time." Kamae was responsible for the craze that swept Hawai`i, and transformed the `ukulele "from a lowly semimusical rhythmic instrument with limited capabilities into a major instrument with almost unlimited potential."

Most musicians can remember their first instrument. Jerry Byrd's first steel guitar was a mail order instrument; Eddie Kamae's first `ukulele was found on a city bus.

I remember buying an old dust-covered `ukulele off the wall in a small barber shop in Sobudae-mae, Japan, in 1959 - for a thousand yen. That was only about $2.78 in those days, and it was my first `ukulele. The barber didn't play, and had taken it in payment from a customer that owed him for several haircuts. It had been collecting dust for years.

I also remember trading that very old, very tiny instrument to my friend Del Bolos for a Harmony baritone `ukulele. I liked the bigger, deeper sound, and he fancied the smaller size and the sound. He had recorded using the baritone and I loved the sound on his record. Little did I know that the first instrument I owned, with its inlaid mother of pearl around the edges, was probably a collector's item.

I recall Del once offered to "trade back" and I said "no." Years later, I learned that he had probably paid $50 for the Harmony, from a mail order catalog, and my little gem was probably worth thousands, a collector's item, some friends told me, probably made in Hawai`i by the early Portuguese who first brought the instrument to the Islands.

But instruments come and go.

And some years later, Rose (Samson) Henry of Kailua asked if she could have that beautiful Harmony baritone `ukulele, so I gave it to her. Sam Kamaka had told me how to refinish it and when I gave it away, it not only had great sound, it looked great, sanded down and lightly oiled to where it felt like the skin on a baby's bottom.

I remember when Melveen Leed gave me my first Kamaka in 1969, after we became friends while cruising on the Lurline. A year or so later, I bought a second Kamaka, so Carmen and I could have "matching" instruments.

In the 1970s, when we wanted to buy a good `ukulele for our son, Michael, who was boarding at Lahainaluna (and bored, sitting around the dorm), Eddie Kamae offered to go with me to help pick out the best sounding Kamaka instrument, from those available. He did it a second time, when we bought one for our mother, Mary, who used it for the rest her life, playing with the Alu Like Senior Citizen Hawaiian Group on Maui. Then she left it to her `ukulele-playing daughter, Carmen.

When we wanted a particular sound for two "`ukulele" songs ("`Ukulele Lady" and "My `Ukulele and Me"), on one of our CDs, we tapped the considerable talent of Randy Oness. He was great, and we were honored.

Once, we had so many `ukuleles or various origins and brand names, that we gave about half a dozen of them our eldest son to sell at a garage sale. We made some folks very happy, including a collector of Martin's who bought my Martin baritone (successor to the Harmony) for a song. We still have more of them than we need, including four-, six-, and eight-string instruments in various sizes.

Polly Rothenberg left her custom-made Martin `ukulele to us in her will, with a condition that we never let it get out of our family. We will not.

I remember how impressed I was with Leo Baduria's `ukulele playing in Japan when I was performing with The Islanders, and then how much I enjoyed the Music of Polynesian recordings of his brother Don when I moved back home.

I always enjoy that old style "Hawaiian" strumming that I heard from so many of the older Hawaiians, including my mother-in-law.

I miss hearing the `ukulele in many Hawaiian music groups today, just as the Japanese fans of Hawaiian music miss the steel guitar in groups where slack-key guitars dominate. I guess I still remember that when I started playing `ukulele, every Hawaiian combo had `ukulele, guitar, steel guitar, and upright bass. At times, we have also had vibes, piano, and other instruments, but we've ALWAYS had at least one `ukulele in our group, whether we performed as a duo, trio, quartet, or bigger band... always.

- Keith Haugen

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rudolphv — Saturday, February 16, 2013
hello i have been a guitar player for years an i came to hawaii 5 or more years ago nolonger wonted to hold that big an havey hunk of wood around becouse i played guitar the ukulele was eazy to play for me an light i need 4 tuning keys for a little ukulele i am ree doing call if any person can help with donation keys or a little thanks rudolph v sumner 8087808251


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