The ukulele is one of Hawaii’s most beloved instruments. Along with the ipu — a percussion instrument made from gourds that has provided beats for hula dancing since the 18th century — the four-stringed instrument has had a lasting impact on Hawaii’s music.
The ukulele originated as a Hawaiian adaptation of the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument brought to the islands by immigrants in the 19th century. Now commonly associated with music from Hawaii, the name “ukulele” roughly translates as “jumping flea” likely because of the rapid movement of players’ fingers.
One of the most important factors in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was the support and promotion of the instrument by King Kalakaua. A patron of the arts, the king incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.
The highly portable and relatively easy-to-learn instrument gained popularity during the early- to mid-20th century on the Mainland U.S. and spread internationally. The all-time best-selling Hawaiian musician, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, helped re-popularize the instrument with his 1993 reggae medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” featured in films, TV programs and commercials.
The ukulele continues to be a vibrant part of Hawaiian culture with kanikapila, impromptu jam sessions that take often place at a beach or family gathering. The term comes from “kani” which means sound and “pila” which means any string instrument in the Hawaiian language. The musical style places emphasis on acoustic instruments, including the ukulele, to reflect the emotion of the players, who sometimes blend songs to form new tunes.
One ukulele gathering being presented today, by Kauai’s Sandy and Doug McMaster, will be the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Concert “Gift of the Ancestors” at Hanalei Family Community Center from 3 to 5 p.m.
If you can’t make that kanikapila, the duo will also be preforming for the Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar and Ukulele Concert “Island of Peace” on Wednesday at Princeville Community Center from 6 to 8 p.m. Enjoy live music at either event for $10 to $25 and be entered in a gift drawing. Proceeds support Hale Halawai Ohana Hanalei and Hanalei Community Association.
Also on Wednesday, there will be a free musical performance at Princeville Public Library beginning at 5 p.m. Singers from Hawaii Opera Theatre will perform Broadway and classical favorites during the 45-minute program. Be sure to enjoy all of the unique music this Hawaiian island has to offer!