The History of the ‘Jumping Flea’: The Ukulele

Contrary to the popular misconception that the ukulele originated from Hawaii, it actually originated from Madeira, a little island in the Atlantic southeast of Portugal and around a 350-miles swim from the shores of North Africa. “Ukulele” translated means ‘jumping flea’. One of the stories on how the four-stringed instrument got its name is that when Joao Fernandes, being one of the travelers on the Ravenscrag reached the Honolulu port, he was so thrilled on finally being on land as they had been at sea for four months. He leaped off the ship and started playing folk songs on this winged instrument. The Hawaiians, who marveled at how fast his fingers plucked at its strings felt that they (the fingers) looked like jumping fleas. Thus it was given the name ’ukulele.’

How did it gain popularity in Hawaii?

Once in Hawaii, the ukulele was immediately absorbed into the Hawaiian culture. King David Kalakaua prompted its gaining of immense popularity as he grew very fond of it.  He was ardent towards creating Hawaiian culture, a passion that was fueled by the missionaries’ desire to convert the natives into Christians: native cultures were deemed uncivilized back then. King Kalakaua encouraged the combination of contemporary arts with the more conventional aspects of the Hawaiian culture so as to enrich the Hawaiian culture. It is King Kalakaua who promoted this wind instrument as a Hawaiian instrument by using it in most, if not all royal functions, to play traditional Hawaiian music along with the hula.

The Uke today

Due to its musical richness and the ease in playing it, the ukulele is fast gaining popularity in the modern world. You have to visit Four String Fun; a website that has played a huge part in bringing it from the past, with entire sites and YouTube channels offering tutorials on how to play it. Its sudden popularity can also be attributed to famous artists such as Eddie Vedder, Amanda Palmer, and Jason Mraz who have all used it to add a bit class to their music. The uke is a simple to learn instrument has in the past been used as a beginners’ instrument for children. It is small and consequently easy to travel with, and it promises to remain for ages to come. Should you need to acquire this incredible instrument, be sure to determine whether you need a soprano, concert, tenor or baritone, depending on the tone of the music.