'Ukulele, late 19th century
Wood, metal, gut
L. 20 1/2 in. (52.1 cm)
The Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments, 1889 (89.4.727)
The most familiar Hawaiian instrument is the 'ukulele, a small type of guitar. The instrument was probably introduced to Hawai'i in 1879 by Portuguese settlers from Madeira who brought with them a small guitar called the braguinha. The settlers included three men, Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo, who knew how to make braguinha. The small guitar quickly became popular with Hawaiians and by 1888 Nunes, Dias, and Espirito Santo were all producing examples for the local market. The instrument was modified to suit local musical tastes and the Hawaiian 'ukulele was born. Probably from the late nineteenth century, this work is among the oldest known 'ukulele.
The 'ukulele found favor in the court of the Hawaiian king David Kalākaua, a champion both of customary Hawaiian music and musical innovation. Under Kalākaua's patronage, the 'ukulele was adapted to accompany hula dance performances, transforming the more sedate tempo of earlier types of hula into the more lively rhythm characteristic of many hula performances today.
There are several accounts of how the 'ukulele got its name, which means "jumping flea." Edward Purvis, a small, lively musician popular in Kalākaua's court, was reportedly nicknamed "uku lele" and the instrument may be named after him. Alternatively, the rapid action of the musician's fingers when playing possibly reminded Hawaiians of jumping fleas. The name may also represent a modified version of 'ukeke, the term for the mouth bow, previously the only string instrument in Hawai'i.