Although many of us think that the ukulele is original from Hawaii, it is actually from a mix of various instruments from Portugal. In a brief history of the ukulele written by John King and Jim Tranquada, this is said about the “machete”, one of the ancestors of the ukulele: “described as a “viola pequena,” or little guitar, by Raphael Bluteau in 1716, the machete went largely unnoticed until the mid-nineteenth century. “The machete is peculiar to [Madeira],” visitor Robert White observed in 1851. “It is a small guitar, with four strings of catgut”.”
A lot of people from Madeira migrated to Hawaii and brought along some of their instruments. They later combined the machete with another Portuguese instrument. This is how King and Taquada put it: “within three years Dias, Nunes, and Espirito Santo would create a hybrid instrument that combined the small size and figure-eight body shape of the machete with the “my-dog-has-fleas” tuning (sans fifth string) of the rajão. It was called the ‘ukulele.” It later became a very popular instrument among the natives of the island and famous groups and singers appeared, such as, William Aeko (fl. 1893-1915), Mekia Kealakai (1867-1944), and Ernest Kaai (1881-1962).
The ukulele, then, expanded to the rest of the USA and subsequently, the world. It became pretty popular in the 20’s, The Roaring 20’s, one of the examples is the famous Ukulele Lady made famous by Bette Midler, but originally by Vaughn de Leath. As an article in UkuleleHunt says:” In the 1910′s and 20′s, Hawaii was all the rage … songs like Ukulele Moon and Ukulele Island. But, moons and islands couldn’t match the appeal of ukulele ladies.” (Listen to it here)
Since then, the ukulele has had many appearances in the film industry and some of the most well-known musicians have admired the “happy” sound of the ukulele. Let’s go through some examples:
In the post-WW2 period, the 60’s, Marilyn Monroe starred in the movie Some Like it Hot as a ukulele player in an orchestra. You can see a scene of the movie in which she plays the ukulele here.
Also in the 60’s, Elvis was into the whole Hawaii madness and did the movie Blue Hawaii which featured a lot of Hawaiian style music and ukuleles. You can watch a scene from the movie here.
Three out of four of the members of The Beatles have played the ukulele at some point. Paul McCartney did a cover of the Beatles’ Something on the ukulele in a the concert for George Harrison (watch it here), and in his solo career he released a song called Dance Tonight which has a ukulele vibe to it. George Harrison was, perhaps the most passionate about this instrument. He had a kind of obsession with the sound of it, and he assured on a letter that he thought everybody ought to have at least one ukulele. Obviuosly, he wrote a lot of songs for it, like, The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea or the cover of Ain’t She Sweet.
In 1979, with the release of the movie The Jerk, starring Steve Martin, the ukulele gained more attention. In the film there is a very famous scene in which Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters sing a song from the 20’s on the ukulele called Tonight You Belong To Me.
Although this cover played on the ukulele came out in the 1990’s, it recently gained more attention when suddenly everyone was watching the video and it was played on TV worldwide. The cover of Somewhere Over The Rainbow by the Hawaiian musician Iz Kamakawiwo’ole, became an international hit overnight and made a lot of people get interested in the ukulele. Watch it here.
In the movie Blue Valentine (2010) Ryan Gosling played the ukulele and sung in one heart-warming scene. It became quite a hit as most people were amazed that he could sing and that he could played the ukulele. He sung a cover of The Mills Brothers’ You Always Hurt The One You Love.
Apart from being a small instrument which makes it easier to carry it around, the beginner ukuleles are very cheap which is very encouraging for people that want to learn how to play it. The chords that are used are very simple so it is the perfect instrument even for the clumsiest people. So I encourage anyone who is slightly insterested to grab a ukulele and play it. As George Harrison said, “Everybody should have and play a uke… I love them- the more, the merrier”.
King, John and Tranquada, Jim (2007) A Strum Through ‘Ukulele History. Retrieved Jan. 10 2014 from http://www.nalu-music.com/?p=96
Wooshed (2008) Ukulele Songs. Retrieved Jan. 15 2014 from http://ukulelehunt.com/ukulele-songs/
Ukulele. (2014) In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved Jan. 16 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ukulele&oldid=590683179