Hawaii’s Official Instrument

Hawaii lawmakers passed a bill on April 21, 2015 naming the ‘ukulele the official state “modern” musical instrument and the pahu, the Hawaiian drum, as the “traditional” musical instrument.

ukulele sizes

Different sizes of ‘ukulele from soprano to baritone

Previously, a similar bill was dropped after critics suggested the ukulele wasn’t ‘Hawaiian’ enough. This time around, lawmakers allowed local students to vote on the matter as part of a project to increase civic engagement in kids.

“The ukulele has widely been regarded as an indigenous Hawaiian instrument since the late 1880s,” Jim Tranquada, co-author with Jim King of “The Ukulele: A History,” said. “As a visual icon the ukulele is instantly associated with Hawaii, which is why it’s used so frequently in advertising.”

The second wave of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira brought the “braguinha” or “machete” with them onboard the ship Ravenscraft to Hawai’i in 1879. The Native Hawaiians made similar instruments out of an indigenous acacia tree called koa and it became a distinctly Hawaiian creation. Soon, the Hawaiian royal family namely King David Kalākaua became fans of ukulele music and supporters of ukulele makers. As Hawaii dealt with American annexation, it became a point of pride to strum this little instrument made of wood found only in Hawaii. “If you were playing a ukulele made of koa, you were demonstrating aloha aina, or love of the land,” Tranquada said. “It was a patriotic act.”

Two stories tell why the Hawaiians renamed the instrument ‘ukulele – one refers to the word meaning jumping flea as suggested by the jumping motion of the hands playing the instrument – another refers to the word meaning the gift that came to us (from Portugal).

The instrument comes in four sizes – soprano, concert, tenor and baritone – from smallest to largest with the first three using standard tuning to G-C-E-A (the baritone is tuned like a guitar). The pineapple model shown in the graphic is the same size as a soprano ‘ukulele. The standard is 4-strings, but the instrument also comes with 6 or 8 strings.

Today the oldest continuous maker of ukulele in Hawai’i is Kamaka Ukulele, which has been in business since 1916 on Oahu. Founder Samuel Kamaka, Sr. apprenticed with Manuel Nunes, one of the original three Portuguese woodcraftsmen of ukulele. Kamaka Ukulele still builds ukulele made of koa, and their instruments remain valuable today.

My husband and I are professional musicians who enjoy singing and playing our ‘ukulele and ‘ukulele-bass as we entertain audiences playing a variety of musical genres. I like to play the ‘ukulele because it is small and portable – much easier to carry around and play than a guitar. My husband likes to play the ‘ukulele-bass also known as the u-bass (bass in the body of a baritone ‘ukulele) as it is much easier to transport than the upright bass which he used to play. The name of our husband and wife duo is The Hawaiian Serenaders.

You can also learn to play Hawai’i’s official instrument, the ‘ukulele, from a Native Hawaiian as you Watch Listen Play the Ukulele Mele Way.

Aloha, Mele Fong aka Ukulele Mele

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Mele Fong is a professional singer, song arranger, and master of multiple strumming styles for the 'ukulele. She is an experienced educator with over 50+ years experience playing the 'ukulele and entertaining worldwide. Mele performs with her husband in the duo "The Hawaiian Serenaders" and leads student groups. In 1996, the duo represented the State of Hawai'i in concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Mele and her husband Richard Tom were both born and raised on Oahu and now reside in Maui.