Ukulele – where does this name come from?

The ukulele is known as the favorite instrument of Hawaiians. It’s a traditional model that looks a lot like the guitar. Nowadays, it has crossed its original borders to land all over the world, especially in Hawaii where it has completely integrated the culture. Discover its origins, its history and its evolution in this article.

The origins of the ukulele

L’ukulele is a musical instrument much like a small guitar. It originates from the island of Madeira, in Portugal where it is called “braguinha”. It was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 by Portuguese immigrants who came for the local sugar cane. Sailing aboard the Ravenscrag, the ancestor of the ukulele is used for the first time to celebrate the arrival of the convoy. The crew then began to play folk songs. Hawaiian craftsmen were then fascinated by the sound of this new instrument. They then adopted it and from that moment, the ukulele is an integral part of the culture of the Hawaiians and especially of its folklore. All official occasions and important ceremonies are accompanied by a ukulele tune.

Where does the name ukulele come from?

Etymologically, the origin of the word “ukulele” is still uncertain. Many hypotheses have been made and the main musical companies have done their research to find the key to this mystery. Of those that are most likely, researchers have concluded that the word ukulele is a deformation of ukelele. The sound is quite similar it must be said. This name actually comes from the combination of two words: “uke” and “lele” which means “scratch” and “hit”. These are the descriptions of the main gestures when playing this instrument.

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But according to another theory, the nickname “ukulele” actually means “jump or fly chip” in Hawaiian. This joins the meaning of the movements of the hand or the fingers on the strings of the instrument in reference to the jumps of an insect. It is sometimes also called kamaka ukulele. It is also very often written in “yukulele” or “youkulele” because of the pronunciation.

The Tahitian ukulele

The Tahitian ukulele or Tahitian banjo is little known to the public. It is a short-necked fretted lute with eight nylon strings. This instrument was born in Tahiti, but is mainly played in almost all regions of Polynesia. It is a variation of the Hawaiian ukulele, but distinguished by a taller, thinner sound and an open back. It is easier and faster to scratch.

This instrument is designed with two strings in the middle that tune one octave higher than the ukulele. Its strings are usually fishing wire, most often green in color. Historically speaking, this variant is more recent. It is very popular in French and Eastern Polynesia. It is also used in the Marquesas Islands for pan-Pacific and Tahitian music as well as in the Cook Islands.

Compared to other ukuleles, the Tahitian model has no sound box. Its body is carved from a single wood, with a large conical hole drilled in the middle. This is topped by a thin piece of wood where the bridge sits. This instrument is thus used as a wooden banjo, hence its nickname Tahitian banjo.

The evolution of the ukulele

The Hawaiian ukulele is now the best-known traditional instrument in Hawaii. During the first periods of their appearance, models were made entirely of koa wood. It is a variety of acacias that comes from Hawaii. Today, the ukulele is available in several models made with several wood species, just like the guitar. You will find mahogany or acacia. There are also rosewood and ebony items. But in Hawaii, ukuleles are still made with koa to keep their originality and their culture.

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As for the strings, they were initially made of sheep gut. Nowadays, they have been replaced by nylon strings, interwoven with a bit of metal to give deeper sounds. The ukulele is still very popular in Hawaii. Local manufacturers continue to produce them and send them to music lovers around the world.

The music trend of the ukulele

The popularity of the ukulele began around the 1920s in Hawaii. Due to its success and popularity with musicians, many American guitar manufacturers have marketed ukuleles. The main producers are the brands Gibson, Regal and Harmony. It was in this same year that the Martin house designed ukuleles of different sizes, larger than those of the original models from Hawaii, to modernize them a little.

These new models were named “Ténor” and “Concert”. From there, the ukulele was adopted by American folk music. Then, in the 1950s, a very inexpensive model appeared in the United States. This is the Islander ukulele. This model is entirely made of plastic hence the fact that it is inexpensive. It has sold several million copies. Also in the same periods, the fourth and largest ukulele size was created. He was called Baritone. Today, this instrument still fascinates and gathers several followers all over the world. It easily crossed its original borders to become an instrument of international stature.

In summary, the ukulele is a musical instrument originating from Portugal and not from Hawaii, as many thought. There is also the Tahitian variety which is little known, but just as appreciated. Over the years, musical instrument manufacturers have perfected the ukulele and offered several other models, including those with larger dimensions. As for the musical fervor around this instrument, it has reached the whole world. Although the etymological origin of its name is still a little unclear, we can say that it comes mainly from the way of playing it. In any case, it is a rather original instrument which offers several sound possibilities for amateurs.

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