The ukulele is a fretted, string instrument which is essentially a smaller, four-stringed version of the guitar. It is commonly associated with music from Hawaii, but was actually developed in Portugal. Ukulele strings are commonly tuned to A, D, F sharp, and B, respectively, with the lowest note being D (the A is a whole step below the B).

A Brief History of Ukuleles

When the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu on the afternoon of August 23, 1879, it was carrying 419 Portuguese immigrants from the island of Madeira to work in the sugar cane fields. It had been a long and hard journey of over 4 months and some 15,000 miles.

In celebration of their arrival, Joao Fernandes borrowed his friend's braguinha, jumped off the ship, and started playing folk songs from his native land on the wharf. The Hawaiians, who came down to the dock, were very impressed at the speed of this musicians' fingers as they danced across the fingerboard and they called the instrument "ukulele", which translates into English as "jumping flea". You see, that was the image conjured up by those flying fingers.

At least that's one of the stories about the origin of the name "ukulele". Typical to much of Hawaiian history, there are several accounts of how the ukulele got its name. Queen Lili'uokalani thought it came from the Hawaiian words for "the gift that came here", or "uku" (gift or reward) and "lele" (to come). Another legend says the instrument was originally called "ukeke lele" or "dancing ukeke" (ukeke being the Hawaiian's three stringed musical bow). The name, being mispronounced over the years, became "ukulele". Another theory comes from a story about Edward Purvis, an English army officer and the Assistant Chamberlain to the court of King David Kalakaua, who was very adept at playing the braguinha. Since he was small and sprightly, the rather large Hawaiians nicknamed him "ukulele", the whole "jumping flea" thing all over again. Still another version of the origin of the world "ukulele" is attributed to Gabriel Davian and Judge W. L. Wilcox (a member of a well-known island family). According to the story, the two men were in attendance at a housewarming party at the Wilcox home in Kahili, where Davian was playing an 'ukulele he had made himself. When one of the guests asked what it was called, Davion jokingly replied that, judging from the way one "scratched at it," it was a "jumping flea". Wilcox, who was fluent in Hawaiian, was asked for the Hawaiian translation and is supposed to have answered, "'Ukulele!".

Over the years, the "jumping flea" legend, the one where Joao Fernandes' fingers were jumping like fleas over the fingerboard, has become the most accepted, probably because that is the coolest story and Hawaiians just love a cool story.

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