The History of the Ukulele Divulged - Uke Tastic

The History of the Ukulele Divulged

The ukulele and it’s history

Where Does it come from?

The ukulele, a small four-stringed instrument, has a rich and fascinating history. It originated in the 19th century in the beautiful islands of Hawaii. The word 'ukulele' translates to 'jumping flea' in English, which is believed to reference the quick finger movements of the players.

Who invented the ukulele?

The specific person credited with inventing the ukulele is Manuel Nunes, a Portuguese immigrant who arrived in Hawaii in the late 19th century. Nunes, along with his fellow luthiers Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, brought the traditional Portuguese braguinha to the islands. Over time, they modified and adapted the instrument, leading to the creation of the ukulele as we know it today.

What is the oldest known ukulele song?

The oldest known ukulele song is believed to be 'On the Beach at Waikiki,' composed by Henry Kailimai in 1915. This iconic song captures the essence of the Hawaiian islands and showcases the ukulele's melodic and rhythmic qualities. Since then, the ukulele has been a staple in Hawaiian music, with numerous traditional and contemporary songs composed for this charming instrument.

Where is it most popular now?

Although the ukulele originated in Hawaii, its popularity has spread far beyond the Pacific islands. Today, the ukulele has become a global phenomenon, appreciated by people of all ages and musical backgrounds. It has gained immense popularity in countries like Japan, where it is often taught in schools as part of the music curriculum. Additionally, its cheerful and versatile sound has made it a favorite instrument for musicians and enthusiasts worldwide.

In conclusion

The ukulele's history is deeply intertwined with the vibrant culture of Hawaii. From its humble origins to its widespread popularity today, this small instrument has captured the hearts of many. Whether you are strumming it on a tropical beach or playing it in the comfort of your own home, the ukulele continues to bring joy and musical inspiration to people around the world.


An inspiring Story

One inspiring story from the history of the ukulele involves its introduction to the United States and its rise to popularity during the early 20th century, primarily due to the efforts of a few key individuals at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915.

Golden Gate Bridge San Francisco


The Story of the Ukulele at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915):The Panama-Pacific International Exposition was a world’s fair held in San Francisco to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal and showcase San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. Among the many exhibits, the Hawaiian Pavilion stood out for its captivating musical performances.

Key Figures:

  •  Jonah Kumalae: A prominent Hawaiian ukulele maker who showcased his ukuleles at the exposition. His instruments were well-crafted and affordable, helping to popularise the ukulele among visitors.


  • Ernest Kaai: A talented Hawaiian musician who performed at the exposition. His ukulele playing, along with that of other Hawaiian musicians, mesmerised the crowds and introduced many Americans to the unique sound of the instrument.


  • George E. K. Awai: Another influential Hawaiian musician and bandleader whose performances at the exposition played a crucial role in sparking interest in Hawaiian music and the ukulele.



The performances at the Hawaiian Pavilion were a massive hit, drawing large audiences and generating widespread interest in Hawaiian music and culture. This exposure significantly boosted the ukulele’s popularity on the mainland United States. In the following years, the ukulele became a staple of American music, featured in popular songs, vaudeville acts, and later in Hollywood films.


  • Jim Tranquada and John King, “The ’Ukulele: A History” (University of Hawaii Press, 2012): This book provides an in-depth look at the history of the ukulele, including its introduction to the United States and its rise to popularity following the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The story of the ukulele’s journey from a Hawaiian instrument to a beloved musical staple in American culture is a testament to the power of cultural exchange and the enduring appeal of music.

UK Ukulele History Explored

The history of the ukulele in the UK is an interesting journey that reflects its global appeal and versatility. Here’s an overview of how the ukulele gained popularity in the UK:

Early Introduction

The ukulele first came to prominence in the UK in the early 20th century, influenced by the Hawaiian music craze that swept through the United States and then Europe. The instrument’s accessibility and cheerful sound made it appealing to British audiences.

George Formby

One of the most significant figures in the ukulele’s history in the UK is George Formby, a British entertainer who became famous in the 1930s and 1940s. Known for his comedic songs and skillful ukulele and banjolele playing, Formby’s influence was pivotal in popularizing the instrument in British music and culture. His distinctive playing style and humorous performances made the ukulele a household name.

Post-War Decline and Revival

After World War II, the popularity of the ukulele in the UK declined as musical tastes changed. However, the 1970s saw a revival, partly due to the influence of folk music and the counterculture movement, which embraced acoustic instruments.

Modern Resurgence

In recent years, the ukulele has seen a significant resurgence in the UK. This revival is attributed to several factors:

  • Educational Programs: Many schools in the UK have adopted the ukulele as a primary instrument for teaching music. Its simplicity and size make it an ideal choice for young students.
  • Ukulele Festivals and Clubs: The UK hosts numerous ukulele festivals, such as the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival and the GNUF. These events celebrate the instrument and bring together players of all levels.
  • Popular Culture: The influence of modern musicians and bands who incorporate the ukulele into their music has helped reintroduce the instrument to a broader audience.


  • “The Ukulele Handbook” by Gavin Pretor-Pinney and Tom Hodgkinson: This book provides an insightful look into the history, cultural impact, and playing techniques of the ukulele, with a section dedicated to its influence and resurgence in the UK.


The ukulele’s journey in the UK is marked by early 20th-century popularity, a mid-century decline, and a robust modern-day revival. Its appeal across generations and musical genres continues to grow, making it a beloved instrument in British music culture.

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