Cool Hand Uke's

Partial History of the Ukulele

©2004 Dan Scanlan

It can be said that the braguinha is the father of the ukulele. But it is also true the rajão is the mother of the ukulele. The ukulele took the physical size from its father, but got its attitude, personality and tuning from the rajão. The braguinha has the same scale length as the original ukulele (now called a "soprano" uke, since there are other larger instruments that some insist on calling ukuleles) but is tuned DGBD. It was rarely played by itself. In Madeiran folk music, the braguinha provided the high, shrill isolated notes in an ensemble -- much like the lead guitar in a two-guitar rock group today. In Madeira and on the Portuguese mainland there are virtuosos who play very fancy rhythms on the braguinha rather than leads, but traditionally it was played single style (but often quickly) and rarely by itself. In a Madeiran ensemble, the rajão performs much the same function as the rhythm guitar. It has five strings, tuned DGCEA. The D is re-entrant, tuned in unison with the D on the C string; the G string is re-entrant (like today's soprano uke), tuned in unison with the G on the E string. The ukulele is tuned like the rajão, but without the D string. (May Singhi Breen later popularized the D6 tuning of the ukulele, ADF#B.)

I like to joke that the mnemonic for the rajão is "Spot, my dog, has fleas."

The third instrument in a Madeiran ensemble was the viola d'aram, a guitar-like instrument with re-entrant tuning that was tuned from the bass range to treble. The rajão was the only instrument that could provide both the lush rhythm of the viola d'aram and the singularity of the braguinha. Thus it was favored by the Madeirans in Hawaii and by the three luthiers who needed to make a living.

Flora Fox, a granddaughter of Manuel Nunes, one of the three Madeiran cabinet makers who came to Hawaii in 1879 on the German ship Ravenscrag, told me her grandfather took a five stringed instrument, removed one string and that it became the ukulele. When she told me this, in the late '80s, I scratched my head in wonderment -- that was not what the history books said, notably Leslie Nunes' A Gift of the Portuguese: The Ukulele. Most histories named the braguinha, sometimes called the machete de Braga, as the forerunner of the ukulele.

But Flora Fox actually sat on Manuel Nunes' lap as a child. I interviewed her on her 104th birthday in Santa Rosa CA. I recorded our conversation. (It was also my own birthday, October 29, but I was born substantially later than her.) Incidentally, she told me Manuel Nunes played the ukulele himself, "beautifully" she said. Flora Fox and her sister were two of the Hawaiian residents who brought the ukulele to the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco to play and to teach. That exposition is credited with starting the first ukulele craze in this country, one that lasted until about 1935. After 1915, most American sheet music began to show ukulele chords. According to Fred Fallin of Chicago, the ukulele was the most popular musical instrument in the American home from 1915 to 1935.

Manuel Nunes and his compatriots, Augusto Dias and Jose de Espirito Santo, came to Hawaii as woodworkers, primarily to service the needs of the Madeirans who were already there, about 900 of them in 1879. Nunes, Santo and Dias' ship was preceded by the Priscilla. There were not enough Madeirans for the trio to survive. They devised a plan. The Hawaiians were already playing the Spanish guitar, thanks to the Mexican paniolos (cowboys). The rajão, being small and capable of both lead and rhythm use, was taken into the taro fields by the Madeirans who worked in them. Thus, the rajão was often called a "taro-patch fiddle". Nunes' older brother Octaviano was reputed to be the finest luthier in Madeira and his family had been making musical instruments for generations. What Manuel Nunes did (perhaps with the help of Dias and Santo, it's unclear) was move the tuning of four of the strings of the rajão onto the body of the braguinha. (In those days, woodworkers made musical instruments as well as cabinets.)

The rajão was very popular in the late 1800's in Madeira (it could substitute for either the braguinha or the viola d'aram) and that may well be one reason the trio chose its tuning rather than that of the braguinha, its similarity to guitar tuning being another.

Later, after the invention of the ukulele, a different instrument, a ukulele with doubled strings, took on the name "taro-patch" fiddle. The original rajão and the braguinha eventually disappeared from Hawaii altogether.

The inventors of the new instrument considered it a mini rajão, but it soon earned the name "ukulele". The Hawaiians quickly took to it, especially since King David Kalakaua, who was an accomplished musician and guitarist, favored it. Nunes, Santo and Dias were very cool businessmen and they introduced the new instrument to Kalakaua and high society. The fingering of the GCEA tuning of the ukulele was the same as the four treble strings of the guitar. It was immediately playable by many Hawaiians and it became popular quickly. In a short time it became the first conscious souvenir, and in some respects maintains that status today.

According to German ethnomusicologist Gisa Jehnichen, "The original rajão was called 'taropatch fiddle' for a long time. After the Hawaiians accepted the ukulele and were coming in closer contact with the Spanish guitar through people who later developed the Hawaiian steel guitar, they started longing for a bigger sound, so a new type of taropatch was created, which directly derived from the ukulele and was 'invented' with the same 'history-creating trick', which was repeated for many years in seriously made reports." It wasn't long before professional ukulele players explored the solo capability of the ukulele, a function which the originators purposely intended by choosing functionally the rajão as the prototype, says Professor Jehnichen.

The new taropatch fiddle had eight strings, arranged in four pairs, using gut strings. Many bands in Hawaii as well as in California (the next destination for Madeirans) adopted the new taropatch after the San Francisco Pan Pacific Exposition in 1915.

About the name: I agree with Fred Fallin that the name ukulele most likely came from a linguistic marriage of ukeke (a plucked traditional Hawaiian instrument akin to a jew's harp) and "mele", song. The story of "dancing flea" probably came about as an obvious pun on a word that was already in use. (I have no more proof than anyone else, but do rely on my understanding of the mutation of language.)

Perhaps the first significant, aye, the most significant, song associated with the ukulele is Aloha Oe, by Queen Liliokulani. The Father and Son Reunion concert in 1998 at the World's Fair in Lisbon opened with this song for that reason. Hear the Father and Song Reunion Band's version of it here .

The truth of the parentage of the ukulele was driven home to me when I arrived in Funchal, Madeira, in September 1998 for the Father and Son Reunion project in which American and Madeiran musicians reunited the braguinha, rajão and ukulele in performances, the final one being at the 1998 World's Fair in Lisbon, Portugal. The night I arrived in Funchal, Madeira, I took out my ukulele and graced my fingers across the strings to see if it was still in tune. The Madeiran musicians immediately shouted in glee, "Rajão!" One of them grabbed a rajão and strummed it for me. I saw right away that it was the very instrument Flora Fox had talked to me about. Musically, the rajão and the ukulele are of one piece. The size alone came from the father, the braguinha.

One of the aspects of the Father and Son Reunion that most delights me is the fact that both Madeira and Hawaii have melting pot cultures, they are both ports in an ocean, their musical heritages are distinctly multi-cultural. Madeira is Celtic and North African and Moorish -- you hear it in the beat, the lyricism and the re-entrant tunings. Hawaii is Polynesian, English, American, Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Mexican and Portuguese -- again all of it heard in its music, especially the ukulele and the slack key and slide guitars.

In the Father and Son Reunion project, we alternated between American and Madeiran tunes. The Madeirans brought to the project songs they believed were played in Madeira when the Ravenscrag left Madeira. We Americans brought tunes we felt were either indicative of the cultural history of the ukulele and our music or that indicated places where the ukulele had been. I suggested the American blues tune, Everybody's Fishing, because Madeira was a stop-off point for the American slave trade. (Curiously, the Madeiran audience responded enthusiastically to this song in Portuguese. When I expressed my delight at their response, my Madeiran friends explained that "everybody's fishing" is slang for something like "what a wonderful time we're having." I had no idea, it was just magical.) Ain't She Sweet made it because of its long association with the ukulele. Raga Rag, a tune I composed, made it because the Madeirans loved it when they heard it at a solo performance at the Cafe de Teatro when I first arrived in Funchal, Madeira. Stars and Stripes Forever made it because John Phillip Sousa is a Portuguese national hero.

Our Father and Son Reunion ensemble included three American players, myself, Fred Fallin and Alfredo Canopin. I alternated between ukulele and braguinha. The Madeiran players were Mario Andre on rajão, Danilo Fernandes on braguinha, and Carlos and Roberto Cruz on ukulele. We performed two concerts in Madeira, one on radio, and then performed at the World's Fair in Lisbon on Madeira Island Day. Leslie Nunes, a great--great-grandson of Manuel's, served as our diplomat from Honolulu. He presented gift ukuleles to the Madeirans from the Sonny D and Kamaka Ukulele companies in Honolulu. I presented them with a restored historical Leonardo Nunes ukulele. Leonardo was one of Manuel's sons.

Just after I arrived in Madeira, U.S. President Bill Clinton bombed Afghanistan and the Sudan using cruise missiles. As an embarrassed and shamed American on foreign soil, I did not want to be the person who brought an American military song to the World's Fair. We discussed this with the Madeirans. We agreed that Sousa was a Portuguese folk hero and his song would be treated by us not as an American military march but as a show piece on the ukulele that honored a Portuguese folk hero. The tune is on the CD because the CD is based on a radio show we performed a few days before the World Expo concert and was the best recording of our show. At the actual performance at the World's Fair in Lisbon, it began to rain lightly during our performance. (We were on a stage surrounded by water. Thousands of fairgoers watched from bleachers 40 yards across the water.) By the end of our performance the rain got heavier and the Expo producers stopped the show, which included a live telecast throughout Europe. The only song we didn't get to play was Stars and Stripes Forever. Mother Nature stepped in and said, "No way!"

By the way, one of our American performers, Alfredo Canopin, is a retired U.S. Navy man and hitch-hiked around the globe on US military planes to get to Madeira. It took him more than a week to travel because the military action in Sudan and Afghanistan gave him low priority on the planes, but he made it and made a wonderful contribution to the project. His rendition of On the Beach at Waikiki was so well liked he performed it during the show as a solo.

There is more history of the ukulele to write, of course. There is yet the story to tell of the German doctor who booked the Priscilla and the Ravenscrag that brought the Madeirans to Hawaii. There are medical and botanical links to ukulele history yet to be told. And there is the story of the music itself, from the roots of Polynesia to the merging with tonal structures of Europe and Asia, especially Vietnam. And there is the story of the meanderings of the ukulele through the world wars, the movie industry in Britain and the US, the lubrication it gave to Tin Pan Alley. This remarkable little instrument has a huge history and impact on the peoples of this planet. If you use this material, I ask you to cite me and my sources. I, in turn, thank the ethonomusicologist Dr. Gisa Jaehnichen of Berlin, Germany, and the ukulele performer and historian Fred Fallin of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for the vast knowledge they are so willing to share.

Dan Scanlan

(Cool Hand Uke)

Nevada City, California


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