U.S.A. / HAWAII / UKULELE / HISTORY

 

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Young Hawaiians playing the ukulele during the reign of Kalakaua. Around 1980.

 


UKULELE
By John King

Let me tell you a secret. The ukulele is Portuguese. It’s true. A trio of Portuguese woodworkers from the island of Madeira, who emigrated to Hawai‘i in 1879, began making the little four-string guitars in Honolulu in the 1880s. But they didn’t call them ‘ukuleles back then; instead, they used the instrument’s Portuguese name: machete (pronounced mah-SHET). The machete had been popular with Madeirans for hundreds of years; in fact, it was their national instrument. One American, a senator named Dix, who spent a winter season at Madeira in the 1840s, reported that in the right hands a machete could produce very pretty music, especially when accompanied by a guitar or cello, but by itself, it was thin and meager. “It is an invention of the island,” he wrote, “and one of which the island has no great cause to be proud. It is not probable that the machete will ever emigrate from Madeira.”

Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Sen. John Dix, visionary.

Actually, the little twanger went anywhere the Madeira islanders did, which was just about everywhere: Capetown, Honolulu, the Antilles, Asia, North and South America. In the 1850s, an Oxford clergyman and author named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson snapped the first-ever pictures of the tiny, toylike instrument. The subjects of that photo shoot were three young sisters—Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell—each dressed in Madeiran lace and holding a machete. Dodgson, who is remembered today by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, was especially fond of six-year-old Alice. You remember Alice, too, don’t you? In Wonderland?

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