ukulele

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Title: How About Uke?: Wizards of the Ukulele—Paauau Waltz; Eddie Kamae, ukulele. Label: Lehua Records. Format: LP. Catalogue#: SL 7010. Track: B-3.

Contextual Associations

The ‘ukulele (or, in English, ukulele) is a plucked/strummed box-lute chordophone currently distributed worldwide but most strongly associated with the Hawaiian Islands. Both instruments pictured here are soprano ‘ukuleles; other more-or-less standard sizes are the concert, tenor, and baritone.  ‘‘Ukulele’ is a Hawaiian word coined in the late 1800s as the name of this instrument. The most commonly accepted, but not the only, interpretation of this name is ‘jumping flea,’ imagery thought to have been used to describe the left hand finger movements of an early virtuoso of the instrument. Amongst the very early admirers of the instrument were members of the Hawaiian royal family, including King David Kalākaua, who introduced the use of the instrument for the accompaniment of hula. Hawaiian music making of the late 19th century had already been greatly Westernized, and the ‘ukulele was easily incorporated into ensembles of the period that typically included such instruments as the guitar, mandolin, violin, banjo, and double bass. Such ensembles not only played at the famous Hawaiian hotels of the day, they also toured to the Mainland and eventually made commercial recordings. There was a conscious effort on the part of early 20th century tourism promoters to construct a strong connection between the ‘ukulele and Hawaii in the minds of people everywhere. There was a huge Hawaiian craze in the 1910s-1920s in America and throughout the cosmopolitan world, and the ‘ukulele figured prominently in it. The ‘ukulele has since become incorporated into many genres of music around the world, and there exists today in many countries clubs of enthusiasts that hope to one day visit and perform in Hawaii. In Hawaiian musical life today the ‘ukulele continues to be used to accompany modern hulas in schools and tourist venues, is found in mostly acoustic-instrument string bands playing contemporary Hawaiian folk music, is performed by virtuoso soloists in concerts and on recordings, and can be heard being strummed by amateur enthusiasts on beaches, in parks, and on front porches. Many fine makers produce excellent instruments at the present time for local and global sale. The ‘ukuleles pictured here were manufactured by two prominent Honolulu makers: Kamaka (founded in 1916 and still in business, this particular ‘ukulele made in the 1950s); and Kumalae (founded by Jonah Kumalae and in operation between 1911-1940; this ‘ukulele dates from around 1930).

Description

The figure-eight-shaped resonator of the ‘ukulele is constructed from thinly-shaven boards of koa wood. The side slats are steam-treated before being placed in a form and glued to interior wood blocks located at the top on bottom of the figure-eight. On the interior sides of the back and soundboard two horizontally-running struts are glued before the boards themselves are glued to the side. The flat soundboard, near its center, has a circular soundhole cut in it, and a wooden bridge is glued to it a few inches below the soundhole. The neck and peg block, fabricated from a single block of koa, is shaped with saws and hand tools. The heel of the neck is securely joined to the top end of the resonator, most likely with a dovetail joint in the resonator block. The flat top side of the neck is laminated with a wooden fingerboard that, on the first instrument, overlaps slightly onto the soundboard but on the second one is flush with it. The top end of the fingerboard terminates in a nut made of wood. Twelve metal frets are inserted into grooves cut into the fingerboard, and plastic dots are inlayed at the fifth, seventh, and tenth frets on the Kamaka instrument. The pegblock has four back-mounted tuning pegs. Four single course strings (nylon on the Kamaka instrument, gut on the Kumalae) run form slits in the backside of the bridge, over the soundboard, just above the fretted fingerboard, and pass over the nut before being wound around the tuning pegs. The strings all have the same vibrating length of 13.8 inches as measured from the bridge to the nut.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The ‘ukulele is held with the back of the resonator pressed against the player’s abdomen, the fingers of the right hand used to strum or pluck the strings and the fingers of the left hand to stop the strings against the fretted fingerboard. The strings of the soprano ‘ukulele are typically tuned: G4 - C4 - E4 - A4. For hula and song accompaniment the instrument is usually strummed rhythmically in chords. In the hands of some musicians it can become a virtuosic solo instrument, sometimes strummed but also plucked to produce melodies. 

Origins/History/Evolution

The ‘ukulele is derived from a small Portuguese lute called the machête de braça brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the late nineteenth century by contracted Portuguese plantation workers from the island of Madeira. Amongst those laborers were craftsmen who started making ‘ukuleles out of locally available koa wood. Very early on in its history it became associated with the nascent tourism industry in Hawaii, and this association was largely responsible for the rapid dissemination of the instrument to the Mainland U.S. and beyond around the turn of the 20th century. In addition to Hawaiian makers of the ‘ukulele whose instruments, by the 1910s, were being sold both in Hawaii and through instrument dealers on the Mainland, several Mainland companies started manufacturing large numbers of the instrument, including the C. F. Martin company of Pennsylvania, who produced thousands of high quality ‘ukuleles between 1915 and 1971. Most of the subsequent innovation in soprano ‘ukulele design has involved the choice of material for the body of the instrument, including metal (1928-1941, the National and Dobro companies), and plastic (first made by Mastro Industries in 1949 and subsequently by other operations). One recent innovation, called the Fluke, combines wood (for neck and soundboard) and plastics (for resonator body and fingerboard). Throughout the 20th century mostly Mainland ‘ukulele makers created myriad hybrid forms of the instrument, including the banjo ukulele.
 

Bibliographic Citations

Beloff, Jim. 1997. The Ukulele: A Visual History. San Francisco: Miller Freeman Books.

Kanahele, George S. 1979. “’Ukulele,” in George S. Kanahele, Hawaiian Music and Musicians. Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, pp. 394-407.

McLean, Mervyn. 1999. Weavers of Song: Polynesian Music and Dance. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Odell, Jay Scott. 1984. “Ukulele [ukelele].” NGDMI v.3: 696-697.

Roberts, Helen H. 1967. Ancient Hawaiian Music. New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

 

Instrument Information

Origins

Continent: Oceania

Region: Polynesia

Nation: U.S.A.--Hawaii

Formation: Hawaiian

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

321.322 chordophone--necked box lute or necked guitar: the handle is attached to or carved from the resonator, like a neck

Design and Playing Features

Category: chordophone

String carrier design: lute - joined

Resonator design, chordophone: box with wood soundboard

String courses: single

Vibrational length: tension bridge to ridge-nut

String tension control: bushing peg

Method of sounding: plucking (direct) and strumming

Pitches per string course: multiple (by pressure stopping against fretted fingerboard)

Dimensions

20.7 in. length

Primary Materials

wood
string - synthetic
pegs - bushing

Maker

Kamaka

Entry Author

Roger Vetter