Uke History – Mark Byrnes

A Brief History of the Instruments and
Music of Hawaii

This will be a three part feature studying the instruments, music, and
culture of the Hawaiian Islands. We will take you to a mystical and magical land, one that is considered paradise, where traditional and new cultures mixed to form new sounds, instruments, and a musical way of life.

In this first installment we will feature the ukulele, its history and development, and its legendary players. There is also an in depth interview with Jim Beloff, the founder of Flea Market Music. So grab your uke and let’s take a trip to paradise.


The ukulele is in fact a descendant of a Portuguese instrument known as a machete, which is believed to have been brought to the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800’s by British shipping vessels. The singing of Portuguese folk songs, as well as the instruments that were used for accompaniment, fascinated the natives. Later, builders from these same ships played a key role in the development of this new instrument.

There are many stories as to how the ukulele got its name. The name ukulele translates to “jumping flea”, which is believed to be the nickname of one of the musicians, an English army officer, in King David Kalakaua’s court. It was this king’s patronage that made the ukulele a widely accepted instrument on the islands. For he not only played but composed on the instrument

By the time of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, tourism had become a small industry in the islands. Businessmen had promoted a paradise of girls in grass skirts playing this little four-string instrument and after the Pan-American Exposition of 1915 with performers like Henry Kailmai, the ukulele was all the craze. Novelty songs were written, you could buy a uke at any department store, and record companies were releasing songs by the dozens. Even mainland instrument makers like Martin started manufacturing ukes to keep up with the demand. This all changed with big band craze of the 30’s and 40’s, and the interest in the ukulele had all but disappeared.

During the 50’s, however, the Hawaiian craze made a comeback with the return of the troops from the Pacific after WWII. Uke players like Arthur Goodfey and his TV show made seeing a ukulele an everyday occurrence. Over nine million plastic ukuleles, made by different manufactures, were sold during this period.

Today the ukulele is still very much alive and well, with uke stars like Lyle Ritz, Moe Keale, and Herb Ohta, the festivals and schools of Roy Sakuma, and a renewed appreciation of all things Hawaiian. And we certainly can not forget Jim Beloff and Flea Market Music for resurrecting the old tunes and adding new ones in the Jumpin’ Jim series of books, and to make the ukulele a relevant and modern instrument.

Get your uke, some good Hawaiian and Tin Pan Alley songs, and I’ll meet you on the islands.

The following interview with Jim Beloff discusses the past, present and future of the ukulele and his fascination with the instrument.

What first piqued your interest in the Ukulele?

I was a guitarist all my life pretty much, and a child of the 60’s, born in 1955. So like everyone else I got caught up in the popular music craze, and I learned to play guitar and was a pretty good guitar player. But it turns out that my father-in-law had played the ukulele in the CB’s during WWII and one night we were in our summer house and he had taken off the wall an old ukulele that I had never paid much attention to. And he started to strum some songs on it, and I was sufficiently intrigued that if I found a nice uke, I’d get it. When my wife and I moved to Los Angeles around 1992, we went to the Rose Bowl flea market in Pasadena, and on a blanket I found a Martin tenor uke. On a whim I bought it and almost immediately became hooked on and intrigued by it, so much so that I tracked down a whole bunch of old song books from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, when the uke was last popular. Within a very short period of time I was captivated with this instrument, even though I was a very good guitar player. There was something really magical working with four strings as opposed to six. That’s why we named our company Flea Market Music, after the flea market at the Rose Bowl.

It wasn’t too much longer that I found some old Cliff Edwards songbooks. We had the idea of collecting some of our favorite arrangements, putting it in a book, and publishing it for the few people that I thought might be interested. And that’s how it all started.

Can you tell us what made the ukulele so popular in the early to mid 20th century?

There were Hawaiian musicians that were traveling off the island and coming over to the mainland, and they raised interest in Hawaiian culture. Then came the Panama- Pacific Expedition of 1915 and the territory of Hawaii had a pavilion. They introduced their culture, music, and dance in that pavilion and that introduced hundreds of thousands of people to their music.

At the time Hawaii was known as a fantasy destination, tin-pan alley songwriters were fascinated by it and started writing songs about the strange and wonderful Hawaiian culture. After that, things just started to happen, people started traveling there in pretty big numbers, the culture caught on in the United States, and as a result ukuleles became popular. In some of those early years Martin made more ukuleles than guitars. It was an easy instrument to play and was associated with this magnificent paradise.

How did the Flea and Fluke come about, the designs are a little different than a traditional uke?

 

All of the credit goes to my brother-in-law Dale Webb. My wife and I had been putting out the book for a while and he kept hearing me say that there was a real need for an inexpensive well-made ukulele, not that many years ago there really weren’t many good ukes easily available. There was just Kamaka, and they were very hard to get, they were booked out three years and didn’t nearly make them fast enough. Then there were some cheap Chinese ukes and that was kind of it. So I thought that if you could come out with a uke that was $100.00 – $200.00 that had a good sound, that there was a good market for that. Dale is an engineer, he’s worked with wood, he had never made a musical instrument before but he quickly realized one of the most time consuming and costly things about a ukulele is the bending of the wood, and he figured if he could deal with the back and the fretboard, the molded parts of the instruments, and nail that accuracy wise, you would have the two most difficult and complicated pieces done. The decision was to come up with two molded pieces, the back and the fretboard, and then assemble every thing else. That was a way you can get accuracy and an unusually big warm sound, because the shape of the fluke and the flea are non-traditional and have bigger cavities than normal, and so as a result Dale hit pay dirt. He came up with a shape that has a nice big warm sound and because the fretboard was so accurate, it was very easy to play. The Fluke came first and the Flea, which has a little less sound because it is a smaller instrument, came later.

With players like Jake Shimabukuro hitting the scene, what are your thoughts on the future of the ukulele?

I think it’s in really good shape right now. He’s actually a part of an ongoing process that been happening since the beginning of the instrument. There’s always been a new virtuoso that has come along and taken it to another level. I actually produced a CD for Rhino records in 1997 called ‘Legends of Ukulele’ with players like Lyle Ritz and Herb Ohta who at there time, took the instrument to a whole new level. Jake is just part of that continuum, to the extent that he’s young and incredibly exciting, dynamic and fun to watch. He’s got great accuracy and speed, and he’s a good guy. He’s just part of that story that there will always be someone who can take it just a little bit further, as a result I think there will always be interest in this instrument, because people will want to try to do what Jake does. That’s what we’ve been dedicating ourselves to, music, both CD’s and books, which represent all of the various kinds of music that can be performed on these same four strings, and to promote this instrument as being almost limitless. I think we have played a part in helping to expand the concepts of the ukulele and what people expect this instrument to produce.


Jim Beloff is the author of The Ukulele-A Visual History (Backbeat Books) and author, compiler and publisher of the popular Jumpin’ Jim’s series of ukulele songbooks, which we have here at Music Folk. This series has sold well over 150,000 copies. Jim has also recorded two CDs of original songs performed on the ukulele (Jim’s Dog Has Fleas and For The Love Of Uke), produced Legends Of Ukulele, a CD compilation for Rhino Records, and made two how-to-play DVDs for Homespun Tapes entitled The Joy Of Uke #1 and #2 which we also carry in our shop. Most recently he released The Finer Things, a recording of sixteen songs he collaborated on with ukulele master, Herb Ohta. In 1999 Jim and his family introduced a new, colorful and low-cost ukulele called the FLUKE (and in 2003 the smaller FLEA uke) that have won admirers all over the world. In six years over 20,000 FLUKE and FLEA ukuleles have been sold. In November 1999 he premiered his Uke Can’t Be Serious concerto for ukulele and symphony orchestra. It was commissioned and performed with the Wallingford (Connecticut) Symphony. In 2002 Jim and his wife, Liz, were lead consultants on Ukulele Fever at the Stamford (CT.) Museum. This exhibit was the first museum show to explore the full history of the ukulele. Their company, Flea Market Music, is dedicated to the ukulele and they believe very strongly that “Uke Can Change The World.”

Music Folk carries a variety of vintage and used ukulele and banjo ukes. We are also authorized dealers for Bushman Ukuleles, Fluke Ukes, and Flea Ukes. If you have any questions about ukuleles, publications, or accessories please call 314/961-2838.

Look for our second installment of the series: Hawaiian Lap Steel – History, Tunings, and Players.

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