Origin of the Ukulele


The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of the Portuguese guitar called cavaquinho. It is a fretted, string instrument which is essentially smaller than the cavaquinho. Ukulele strings are commonly tuned to A, D, F sharp, and B respectively with the lowest note being D.

A Brief History of Ukuleles

The ukulele is commonly associated with Hawaiian music across the globe and with good reason. Portuguese immigrants traveled across the waters in Aug. 1879 aboard the Ravenscrag, destination Honolulu. This vessel was carrying 419 Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira to work in the sugar cane fields. Among these immigrants you could find Manuel Nunes, Jose do Espirito Santo, and Augusto Dias. It was said that soon after their arrival in Honolulu these 3 could be found entertaining the streets with their folk music each evening. King David Kalakaua was especially fond of the instrument, establishing the ukulele as part of the Hawaiian music and culture.

Where Did Ukulele Get Its Name?

The Hawaiian name for the ukulele was pila li'ili'i which translates as “Little Fiddle.” Queen Lili'uokalani thought it came from the Hawaiin words uku which means gift and lele which means to come, hence the phrase “the gift that came here.” Still other stories have different views.

One theory suggests that the name ukulele was derived from a continuous mispronunciation of the original name ukeke lele, which is translated to dancing ukeke. Another theory suggests the name derived from a nickname given to an English army officer by the name of Edward Purvis. He was called “ukulele” due to his small size and high spirited nature. This officer was very adept at playing the instrument so some believe this was the origin of the name.

Let us not forget the story of Gabriel Davian who was playing his homemade instrument at a housewarming party for Judge W.L. Wilcox when one of the guests approached him and asked what this magnificent instrument was. Davian replied, “Judging from the way one scratched at it, it was a jumping flea.” Wilcox offered the Hawaiian translation “ukulele.”

However the ukulele received its name it is easy to see why many favor the story of the immigrants. In Hawaiian ukulele means jumping flea. Hawaiians enthusiastically shared the tale of these 3 immigrants music talent and how they played. Graphic details of how the immigrants’ fingers moved across the strings reminded many listeners of “jumping fleas,” hence the name ukulele.

Published: 7 January 2005

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