TIDBITS Blog Archives

Music of the Islands

In my story, “Monique’s Melody,” the elderly Dr. Whitaker plays his ukulele for hours on end as he imagines his life with his wife, long before in Hawaii. As his daughter explains to her prospective employee, her parents had learned to play the ukulele on an extended Hawaiian vacation during their retirement. When we think of the ukulele and its sweet, mellow sounds, we typically imagine the Hawaiian islands. However, this iconic instrument evolved from a similar instrument first seen on the Portuguese island of Madeira. Let’s take a look at—and an imaginary listen to—the history of the ukulele and how it became the instrument dreamed of by people the world over.

The ukulele has a storied history. Its roots can be traced to Portugal, particularly the island of Madeira. In the nineteenth century, Madeira boasted rich woodlands and was known for its vineyards, its wooden furniture industry, and its manufacture of fine musical instruments, notably the braguinha or machete de braga, crafted of wood from locally grown trees. Late in the nineteenth century, a series of natural disasters destroyed much of the woodland, severely curtailing the island’s previously thriving industries. Now there were a great many able-bodied men in Madeira who lacked the livelihoods they had come to rely on. They didn’t have to search long to find work, as right around that time (in the 1870s), the burgeoning sugarcane industry in the Hawaiian islands required many more workers to labor on its plentiful plantations.

Many Portuguese men began arriving in Hawaii, along with their families. On August 23, 1879, three woodworkers, Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito, along with musician Joao Fernandes, arrived in Honolulu Harbor. Upon their arrival, Fernandes sang a thanksgiving song as he strummed the machete. 

The Hawaiians fell in love with the music. So impressed with how the Portuguese musician’s fingers seemed to leap over the strings so quickly, they nicknamed the instrument the “ukulele,” which means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian. Once in Hawaii, the machete evolved into the original ukulele; it changed in size and shape and was tuned to make it easier to play as it developed its distinctive ukulele sound. The Hawaiian king, David Kalakauna, was one of the Hawaiians who adored the sounds of the ukulele. King David’s royal imprimatur made the ukulele part of the Hawaiian musical tradition. Not long after, his sister, Queen Lydia Lili’uokalani (who composed “Aloha ʻOe”) declared it the official national instrument of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The queen’s interpretation of the name “ukulele” was “a gift from afar,” in recognition of the Portuguese who journeyed to Hawaii with their musical instruments.

In 1915, the Pan Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco, California. Jonas Kumulae, a recognized Hawaiian ukulele maker, presented his prized instrument to the crowds of mainlanders; this led to the world’s first “uke” craze outside of Hawaii. This segued into the ukulele’s prominence in the early Jazz Age. Throughout the 1920s, the uke was in great demand by amateur players; uke chord tablature was used in published sheet music for popular songs. People loved the music and its association with the celebrated islands of Hawaii.

Beatles George Harrison, Paul McCartney, and John Lennon were fond of the ukulele; they were all proficient players. Tony Award winner Tessie O’Shea was a British ukulele player who appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the night the Beatles debuted in 1964. Though its popularity began to wane somewhat in later decades, the ukulele enjoyed a revival beginning in the 1990s. Ukulele sales have been catapulted in recent years to an all-time high.

The humble ukulele, with its sweetly mellow sounds, once again has found its rightful place in the hearts of so many—like Dr. James Whitaker—who appreciate the musical treasure embodied in the magical Hawaiian Islands.


  1. “Ukulele: History, Fun Facts, and Benefits of Learning,” Stage Music Center
  2. Brie Adams,“Five Things You Probably Didn’t Know About the Ukulele,” May 21, 2015
  3. Sandor Nagyszalanczy, “The Birth of the Ukulele,” May 27, 2015
  4. “Ukulele,” Wikipedia