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When was the ukulele invented?

Aloha! I'm never on Maui long enough, even the rest of my life wouldn't even be long enough! When I am on island I see lots of local goods. Leis, conch shells, ukuleles... but imagine my surprise when I found out ukuleles weren't a Hawaiian invention!


Well, in a way I suppose one could argue they are "Hawaiian" because they were crafted in Hawaii, but the first ukulele was made by a Madeiran. Madeira (Portuguese for wood) is a tropical island and part of a volcanic archipelago in the Atlantic, southwest of Portugal. The island had a thriving timber industry and a long history of furniture making. It was also known for Madeira wine, a sherry-like beverage which was popular because it didn't spoil on long sea voyages. The Madeiran locals were known for entertaining tourists in the 1800's with music, mostly played on Spanish guitars and a small guitar-like four stringed instrument called a machête (named after the city in northern Portugal where the instrument originated).


By the mid-1800's Madeira was beginning to become a place to escape from, not to. So several locals made the journey to the Sandwich Islands (what the Hawaiian islands were commonly called back then). Three woodworkers (Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo) and their families joined more than 25,000 Madeirans who came to Hawaii on the late 1800's. Their ship arrived August 23, 1879 and a joyous passenger by the name of Joao Fernandes started playing and dancing with the safe arrival.


The musician had entertained those aboard ship, but soon, he and others were the talk of the town only a couple weeks after their arrival. September 3, 1879 the Hawaiian Gazette wrote, "...Madeira Islanders recently arrived here have been delighting the people with nighty concerts. The [m]usicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and a banjo, but produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels."


The three woodworkers fulfilled their contracts on the sugar plantations and then went back to their trade, each setting up woodworking shops but also making instruments as well, possibly as a side business to make extra money. The first printed mention of a instrument clearly identified as a ukulele came only a decade after these woodworkers arrival. But trying to figure out which one made the first ukulele is impossible (at this point), but Nunes claimed in a newspaper ad he invented the ukulele.


The ukulele is unique, actually a cross between two different instruments. The petite size and body shape, along with the 17-fret fingerboard comes from the machête and the four strings (G-C-E-A) come from the smallish Portuguese instrument called a rajãos. They were also likely made of Koa wood when they were first created which was different than the juniper and spruce (or other light woods) used for machêtes.


So the debate on whether ukuleles are "Hawaiian" could go on longer than they've been around... but what is for sure is they are super fun and enjoyed by many on (and off) the islands.





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