The jury is out on how the ukulele – also known as a cabaco, manchhete, braguinha, and cavaquiho – got a Hawaiian name ever though it was designed in the Madeira Island of Portugal.
Speculations vary. One theory is that a Portuguese immigrant – destined to work in the sugar-cane fields — played the instrument on the dock of what is now Honolulu after jumping off the ship. After four months of being cooped-up at sea, he reaction was to sing about the joy of being on land again. Another rumor is that an Englishman who worked as an advisor to the Hawaiian king, introduced the instrument to the islands.
But no matter how it got its name, the four-string ukulele is a much-loved instrument of the guitar or “lute” family.
When did the ukulele become popular in the USA?
It took until the 1900s before the instrument became familiar to mainstream people in the United state. In 1915, the Panama Pacific International Exposition was held in San Francisco to celebrate the Panama Canal being finished. A Hawaiian group performed traditional songs with the instrument and, thus, the connection of the ukulele being an instrument from the island was born. The association of Hawaii being the home of the ukelele is deeply rooted in popular thought. Think of the island and the song “Aloha Oe” — written by Queen Lili’uokalani — comes to mind.
As well as the United State, the ukulele also became popular in Canada – where it was adapted as part of the school music program – and Japan.
One reason the Canadian schools taught music using the ukulele is that it is relatively easy to learn to play. Whereas the guitar has five strings and a wider neck, the ukulele is better suited to the small hands of children.
Although it can be played on its own, the ukulele also carved out a place for itself as a second instrument in groups that ranged from rock banks to symphony orchestras.
How to pick the right ukulele
Before you come to a decision about which ukulele is the best for you, do your research. Then go down to a local shop and finger a few. The 18-fret instrument measures from about 21 to 23 inches and addresses a wide range of musical needs.
If you are a beginner, the Hola! HM-21 Poprano Ukulele might be a good choice.
Why? It is a comfortable instrument that is made of agathist – a member of the alder family — wood. Another plus for beginners is that the frets are clearly marked to make it easier to learn where the fingers should be. Another learning perk is that there are inlay markers on the 5th, 7th and 10th frets. Again, it helps to make it easier to navigate.
When it is time to perform, you might want to move up to a Luna Mahogany Series Tattoo. It is slightly larger than a soprano ukulele, and delivers a richer sound. This model also sports designs that help make you look like a serious performer.
How to learn to play the ukulele
Type “how to play the ukulele” into a search engine and be prepared to be overwhelmed with sites that cater to teaching people how to play the instrument.
As with learning any musical instrument, the “secret” – which isn’t much of a surprise – is that practice, practice, and more practice is the way to go. While you may aspire to being the next Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Jake Shimabukuro or Cynthia Lin, it is going to take a substantial amount of work to play in that league.
One question to ask yourself is “how disciplined am I”? While you might spend two hours a day the first week, it may dwindle to 20 minutes by the second, and to collecting dust by the third.
One way to get around this is to sign up and take lessons from a professional ukulele teacher. The fact that you paid to learn will inspire you to practice more frequently. In addition, the teacher will expect you to know the song for the next lesson, so the emphasis is on you to be responsible.
If, however, you are a self-directed learner you may well have set your alarm clock for 05:30 every morning so that you can get in an hour of practice before you head to the gym.
Some people find it easier to learn with a friend. So if s/he also takes up the instrument it will inspire you to keep pace. Music is more fun when played together, so this is an ideal solution for some.
How to discover your inner musician
The ukulele is an ideal instrument for you to unleash the supressed musician in you. It is cheaper – and easier to take with you – than a grand piano, much quartier than a set of drums and more versatile than a tuba.