The ukulele: where it originated from and how it become popular
Wipe those images of wacky George Formby songs and randomly strumming primary school groups from your mind. The hugely popular ukulele has a very noble heritage, says Matt Swaine
Where did the ukulele originally come from?
The ukulele’s classical roots have been explored most recently in a collaboration between Browning, Hinchliffe and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny’s ensemble Theatre of the Ayre. Called Lutes ‘n’ Ukes, it unites the Renaissance guitar and 20th-century ukulele. ‘The Portuguese braguinha and lute would have been contemporary instruments and played together in Elizabethan times,’ says Browning.
‘One of our orchestra plays a Renaissance guitar that just happens to be a four-course instrument with re-entrant tuning, very much like the ukulele.’ And the project also links two homonymous composers from very different eras: Robert Johnson (1583-1633), the Tudor lute composer, and Robert Johnson (1911-38),the blues guitarist.
The ukulele first arrived on the shores of Hawaii in 1879 in the guise of the Portuguese braguinha, a small four-stringed instrument from the island of Madeira, closely related to the mainland cavaquinho. One man, João Fernandes, learnt to play on the four-month sea voyage to Hawaii and legend has it that islanders were so impressed with the speed of his finger work that they named the instrument ‘ukulele’, or ‘jumping flea’.
Another (possibly more credible) explanation for its name came from Hawaiian royalty. Princess Likelike was herself a ukulele player and explained that the name meant ‘the gift that came to here’.
Royal seal of approval also came from King David Kalakaua and Queen Lili‘uokalani, who both played and composed on the instrument. With their endorsement it soon became central to the sound of Hawaiian music. ‘It brings a bouncing counterpoint to the rhythm guitar and a gut or nylon string timbre to groups of steel instruments,’ guitarist and ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman explained to me back in 2006. ‘And of course it provides a rhythm for singing as well as slack and steel guitar.’
In 1915, the ukulele hit the US. A highly portable and inexpensive instrument, it sparked a craze and quickly became a staple of vaudeville, jazz and country music. Across the Pacific it was introduced to Japan in 1929 by Hawaiian-born Yukihiko Haida and its popularity has never diminished – in fact, the country is considered the ukulele’s second home. The instrument is loved by young Japanese, best exemplified by the flash mob group Ukulele Afternoon, who descend on beaches and shopping malls to play as a group and describe their form of playing as ‘Punk rock combined with the sensitivity of a chamber orchestra’.
George Formby and the ukulele
Here in the UK, the ‘uke’ is most commonly associated with George Formby, the comedian and film star who played a banjolele – a ukulele hybrid with a banjo resonator body. (The ukulele actually comes in a number of forms, from the tiniest sopranino to the rather more guitar-like baritone.) Formby ignited a passion for the instrument in the Beatles’ guitarist George Harrison, who had a ukulele in every room of his house, and other celebrity players include Paul McCartney ( pictured), and comedian Peter Sellers.
Although Formby was an impressive player, it’s that jaunty ‘Leaning on a Lampost’ association that has sunk the instrument’s reputation in the eyes of many people. But for classical guitarist Nick Browning, the ukulele is a very serious proposition. ‘I came to the uke as a challenge,’ he explains. ‘As a classical guitar student, I was very pleased with myself when I’d cracked one of Bach’s fugues on classical guitar. Then I heard a violinist playing it on just four strings and I wanted to know how they were doing it. So when I discovered the uke I set out to challenge myself to do just the same.’
What are the 4 strings on a ukulele?
Adding to the restriction of a small fretboard is the ukulele’s ‘re-entrant tuning’, which is also found on instruments such as the five-string banjo and means that the strings don’t run from low to high – instead, they begin with the G above middle C, then drop down to middle C itself before rising up to E and then A. This high register gives the ukulele its characteristically bright sound, but limits the range to that of a descant recorder.
More like this
‘With the re-entrant tuning, it’s an exercise in minimalism,’ explains Browning. ‘You have to imply a lot as there’s no bass note. It’s a small instrument with a tiny range, so you have to orchestrate carefully. But by using the high G and playing across the strings, it does allow you to achieve that campanella – or bell-like – sound that would have been heard in Elizabethan music. So the ukulele has the potential to connect people to a vast repository of classical and contemporary music.’
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain has become a national institution, with a repertoire that ranges from classical to punk, and spaghetti western to ’70s disco, all performed on instruments with just four strings (a solitary acoustic bass guitar gets in on this technicality). The orchestra has played a major part in popularising the ukulele, with sales at music stores booming and the instrument becoming a mainstay of schools’ music curriculum. But it’s been far from an overnight sensation.
More instrument guides
- 10 medieval musical instruments
- Oboe vs clarinet: what is the difference between these two woodwind instruments?
- Cornet vs trumpet: what’s the difference?
- Pianolas: what they are and how they differ to the ‘reproducing piano’
- The bassoon: a guide to the orchestra’s largest wind instrument
- What is a harp?