Ho‘o Nalu Archive for February, 2007

Die Verwandlung

Tuesday, February 27th, 2007

ne morning Edward Purvis awoke from a bad dream to find himself transformed into a diminutive, verminous insect. That’s the story, anyway: an article by Lorin Tarr Gill entitled “Portuguese Were First To Introduce Ukulele In Hawaii Says Miss Roberts” published in the magazine section of the Honolulu Advertiser on August 10, 1924. Forty-five years after the arrival of Madeiran cabinet makers who would craft and market the first ‘ukulele in Hawaii, the cultural memory of those remote times was rapidly fading. None of the principals involved in the story were alive in 1924, not the trio of cabinet makers cum luthiers, Dias, Santo and Nunes; not João Fernandes who claimed to be the first to play the machete in Hawai‘i in 1879 after disembarking from the Ravenscrag following a four-month voyage from Madeira; not Edward Purvis.

“Miss Roberts,” who was Helen Roberts, a Yale University researcher hired to collect and publish the ancient meles and olis still extant in the once-kingdom of Hawai&#145i, got the story from “Mrs. Dorothea Emerson, wife of the late well known Hawaiian scholar, Joseph S. Emerson …”

Coming of Purvis

Mrs. Emerson, an Englishwoman, came to Hawaii in 1882. In Europe she had known as close friends a family by the name of Purvis, one of whose sons, Edward Purvis, had been an army officer in India. His health having failed, they sought to regain it by moving to the Sandwich Islands and were followed by Edward Purvis in August, 1879 [!], after a home had been selected.

Mr. Purvis lived for some time on the island of Kauai, readily learned the language, and became interested both in the Hawaiians and the Portuguese. Being gifted musically, he noted the new instruments and soon played the smallest with skill. His extensive travels, education, and life in India very well fitted him for the appointment to the post of vice-chamberlain to the court of King Kalakaua and his popularity with the Hawaiians amply justified it.

A Thing That Jumps

He was slight of stature, agile, and light on his feet, in which respect he was rather a contrast to the large-bodied and slow-moving Hawaiians and for that reason his agility became the occasion of affectionate humor. The nickname ‘ukulele’ or ‘little thing that jumps’ (present common term for flea) which someone aptly applied to him, remained with him, and by association, with the little instrument with which he was often seen.

While Roberts didn’t include the story of how the ‘ukulele got its name in her book Ancient Hawaiian Music she did recount it in an article for Thrum’s Hawaiian Annual for 1926—albeit in truncated form without revealing the identity of Purvis. She also published the full account in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1931. Samuel Elbert and Edgar Knowlton used the Purvis story as the basis of their article “Ukulele” (American Speech, Vol. XXXII, No. 4, December 1957) which is arguably the first attempt at scholarly research into the history of the instrument. It was Elbert and Knowlton’s intention to simply recite the story in order to justify characterizing “ukulele” as a particular type of speech: a name morphed into a word. And to that end they did an admirable job, assuming the Purvis story is true.

In Hawaiian Music and Musicians George Kanahele cites no fewer than five hypotheses on how the &#145ukulele was named, but the Purvis story is presented first and foremost. Kanahele points to the source of the name (the Purvis story) and that it can be found in the definitive and highly regarded Hawaiian Dictionary of Mary Kawena Pukui and (the above-mentioned) Samuel Elbert. Consequently, nearly every article, monograph and book about the instrument published since HMM gives pride of place to the Purvis story—from The ‘Ukulele: A Portuguese Gift to Hawaii (Honolulu, 1980) to Jim Beloff’s latest edition of The Ukulele: A Visual History (San Francisco, 2003).


I had a problem with the Purvis story the very first time I read it. Something didn’t ring true. My skepticism has grown since then and developed along a couple of different fronts, one being the late date at which the tale was first told—after the ‘ukulele became an international craze (the same can be said about the timing of all such stories about the instrument)—and the other regarding some historical truths about Purvis and the nature of his tenure as Kalakaua’s vice-chamberlain. My initial balk had nothing to do with either of those, and everything to do with this: I’ve had a lot of experience living with the common domestic flea, Ctenocephalides felis. When you first feel the bite, close observation reveals a tiny, dark pinpoint upon your skin. This is the flea. Move quickly and you may capture it under a finger tip; move with less alacrity and the pinpoint will simply vanish. There is no visual input, no perceived leaping; just now you see it, now you don’t.

Mark Twain wrote eloquently of the mosquitoes in Hawaii; other authors had plenty to say about the fleas there. My encounters with the little buggers have been similar to the following (beginning with a quasi-mythological retelling of the introduction of the flea into Hawaii), taken from Scenes and Scenery in the Sandwich Islands … during the years 1837-1842 by James J. Jarves (Boston, 1844):

First Introduction of Fleas, page 130

Waimea [Kauai], according to native tradition, claims the honor of being the first landing-place of—fleas. Their introduction was after the following manner. A woman, as was customary then, having gone off to a vessel at anchor in the roads, received from her lover, upon her return, a bottle tightly corked, which he told her contained valuable waiwai, (property,) and that she must not open it until she reached the shore. She obeyed his instructions, and overjoyed with her acquisition, hastened to show it to her friends. Having assembled them all, the bottle was uncorked with the greatest care, and looking in, they beheld nothing. The nimble prisoners had all hopped out, and soon gave being to a countless progeny, that have gone on ever since, hopping and biting with undiminished zeal. The man should have been flayed alive for his mischief, or tied, Mazeppa like, to the back of one of his own fleas.

Page 199

The voyager’s thoughts wander from his neat and well furnished room, to a mother, or wife, in his native land, and he involuntarily ejaculates, ‘My country-women the same everywhere—God bless them,’ as he contrasts the snow-white counterpane, the comfortable mattress, and drawn musquito-net, with the suspicious mat, the stone pillow, and the agonies of fleas which he endured in some wild hut the night previous.

Page 260

However, it being too late to retrace our steps, we devoured a young pig, begged a mat, and fatigue (having walked twenty-five miles) soon wrapped us in a slumber, which neither the furious attacks of fleas, or swinish noises around us, could break.

Page 297

I have been flea-victimized on the cold mountains of Hawaii, and the scorched plains of Kauai …

The key phrases—as any hardened flea wrangler would tell you—are these: “…biting with undiminished zeal…the agonies of fleas…furious attacks of fleas…I have been flea-victimized.” Fleas nimble and quick? Aye. Bloodsucking, damnable, ectoparasites? Aye, aye! But there’s no need for supporting documentation; you can take this straight from the gospel of John, the ukulele-ist, chapter and verse: fleas—‘ukulele—are an abomination.

To Steal a Kingdom

Stipulating that Edward Purvis was indeed nicknamed Ukulele, and taking in to account the pestilential nature of fleas, I speculated Purvis might have been so-christened because … he was not a nice guy. So I decided to learn something about the turbulent times in which he lived—the days when the ‘ukulele was born—during the decline and fall of the Hawaiian Kingdom. And bingo, there it was, in the surviving diaries of Walter Murray Gibson, Kalakaua’s prime minister:

Sun., Aug. 8 [1886] — At Mr. Neumann’s house, He intimated that he could prove the authorship of hostile articles in Gazette — Purvis. The King at my house — will remove Purvis & Judd too, if he has proof.

Charles H. Judd, the chamberlain and commissioner of crown lands, resigned “for certain improper conduct” on August 30, 1886, and Purvis resigned shortly after. Both were suspected of “feeding derogatory information about the government to the anti-Kalakaua newspaper, the Gazette.” Additionally, Purvis was probably the author or coauthor of two notorious burlesques on the Kalakaua monarchy: Grand Duke of Gynbergdrinkentstein and Gynberg Ballads. The caricature of Kalakaua shown here is attributed to Purvis and is from the Gynberg Ballads. The king is depicted holding a giant corkscrew—his left hand resting on an enormous gin bottle—and dressed in an Hawaiian postage stamp malo (bearing his likeness), spurs, garters, collar and cuffs. The illustration accompanies a parody entitled “The Order of the Bar.”1

Fortunately, Purvis’ own account of his resignation survives in a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law, Jules Ratard, dated October 2, 1886:2

I bearded Rex [Kalakaua] in his library next his bedroom in the Palace, where he had been in seclusion all the morning, afraid apparently to come down stairs. I marched in there, Rex standing up and placing the table between us. Smiling all over I told him that I had had a very pleasant time in the Palace, thanked him for his kindness, but told him that owing to the sudden dismissal of my chief [Judd] I took this occasion for resigning all my appointments. He stood there ashy pale and never uttered a word the whole time. I went in to the interview gay as a lark. I knew from his hiding that Rex was ashamed, his placing the table between us, as if I were a nihilist, and his color and expression all gave me the feeling that I was complete master of the situation. I returned to the office, gave up my keys, and have not been near the place since.

Purvis’ resignation was undoubtedly hastily arranged to avoid the sacking he was due, if we can believe Gibson’s diary, which doesn’t seem unreasonable. His loyalty to his “chief” (Judd) rather than the moi (Kalakaua) arguably places Purvis among that group of haoles—both Hawai‘i and foreign-born—who were practitioners of social-Darwinism and believers in the Spencerian tenet of “survival of the fittest.” To such men, Kalakaua and other native Hawaiians could never be more than barbarians decorated with a veneer of civilization. Purvis’ letter to Ratard is full of the condescension and superiority typical of the white oligarchy who would eventually overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy. To that end, while he was alive and residing in Hawaii, Purvis appears to have been an active participant.

“The large-bodied and slow-moving Hawaiians”

If you read that line without flinching (or even questioning the supposition) don’t feel too bad; it’s that old white magic, institutionalized racism. Mmm. Large-bodied slow-moving Hawaiians? Like the Kahanamoku brothers? Right. Here’s another take on the typical Hawaiian, from The Travel Diary of a Philospher by Count Hermann Keyserling:

Life in Hawaii involuntarily assumes the nature of a myth. The European, the essentially historical being, seems out of place here like a crawling fly on a water-colour drawing. The Hawaiian, however, who fits into the picture, appears strangely unreal; or real, rather, in the sense of dream-experience. There is hardly a difference between that which I see with my eyes and what I read in the old heroic sagas. These men resemble exactly those who live only in mythology: warm-hearted and careless, light-minded and good, frittering away their life from feast to feast; and at the same time terrible in war, cruel and merciless, once it comes to fighting. The gods of Olympus were not different.

Are these handsome brown men, who feel as much at home in the ocean as fishes do, men like ourselves? Probably not quite; each element develops special beings. Among men living upon the water I have so far only known its conqueror, that is to say, the land animal which has subjugated water through cunning; the genuinely amphibious human being can be found today only in the South Seas. But here he is so perfect in his way that he seems superhuman for this very reason. The Hawaiian who acts as my guide on the oceans is fair as a god, of gigantic stature, and a famous shark fighter; he is said to have put out with his spear the eyes of every shark whom he has met. At the same time, he is gentle and mild, and in the evening, when the coco palms sigh in the wind, he sings melancholy tunes to himself. Once more my thoughts roam over to distant Greece. With what marvellous certainty did the Greek imagination create! What nature has manifested in the South Seas is the mirrored reflection of the Greek ideal.

Haina ia mai ana kapuana

ne morning Edward Purvis awoke from a bad dream to find himself transformed into a diminutive, verminous insect. Or did he? Helen Roberts felt the Purvis story “came from such a reliable source, and yet is so little known, that it seemed worthy of being published as it was. After I had put it in shape I submitted it for approval to Mrs. Emerson and to one of the surviving members of the family of the man for whom the ukulele was named, who gave his confimation of its truth and permission to have it published.” Has any contemporary confirmation of this story ever come to light? Unfortunately, no.

Those who were intimates of Kalakaua’s when Purvis was in his employ and later wrote of their experiences say nothing of the vice-chamberlain. Of the man who “…was always in demand among the Hawaiians to add his music to their fun” and was “…so devoted…to his little “guitar” that he was seldom seen without it under his arm&#148 I have found nothing. Isobel Strong, the step-daughter of Robert Louis Stevenson, and an Iolani Palace regular during this period mentions only the king playing the guitar and ukulele. She writes about plenty of other interesting people as well. Seems like Purvis was a real stand-out. And yet he didn’t make the final edit of Strong’s autobiography, This Life I’ve Loved. And, according to Kanahele, Lili‘uokalani had a completely different interpretation of the meaning of ‘ukulele. Was she revising history because of Purvis’ betrayal of her brother, the king?

Who knows. Until something more substantial turns up about Purvis and the ‘ukulele—something from the time in which it is alleged to have happened—I’m throwing it on the stack of apocryphal stories about the instrument. In her article about Purvis in the Journal of the Polynesian Society, Roberts writes that the nickname “uku-lele” stayed with Purvis “until his death and…became associated with his beloved little instrument in the minds of all his friends, and has perpetuated his memory.” Purvis died of tuberculosis in Colorado in 1888, only two years (almost to the day) after he resigned as Kalakaua’s vice-chamberlain. Curiously, the use of the word ‘ukulele in association with the little, four-string guitar has yet to surface in the written record before 1889 and did not become commonplace until the 1890s, several years after Purvis’ death.

  1. See The Diaries of Walter Murray Gibson, 1886, 1887 edited by Jacob Adler and Gwynn Barrett, p. 65; also see The Hawaiian Kingdom, 1874-1893 by R. S. Kuykendall, pp. 346-347.
  2. Hawaii State Archives, Series M-205, Box 1-1.

Text and images © 2007 by John King

Notes of a sub-sub librarian

Tuesday, February 13th, 2007

drop cap In June 2005, I received an email from Dr. Gerhard Stradner, the Curator Emeritus of the Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente (Collection of Historic Musical Instruments) at the Kunsthistorisches Museum at the Neue Burg in Vienna. He had read my article, “A few words about the Madeiran Machete,” in the Galpin Society Journal and wanted me to know he had an old machete, and I had a standing invitation to examine it.

If I was ever in Vienna.

A couple of days later he sent this description …

Machete (Machete de braco), Octavianno João Nunes, Madeira, Anfang 19. Jhdt.
Portugiesische Diskantgitarre mit 4 Saiten, SL 333, CL 224
Originalzettel: “Octavianno Joao Nunes / Artista de Violas Francezas / Guitarras, Rebecas, Rabecoes / e Machetes / Rua de S. Paulo No. 35 A / Madeira.”
In originaler Schatulle 540 x 160 x 90, innen mit rotem Samt, handgeschriebenes Notenheft und Notenblätter in Notenschrift und Ziffern für die betreffenden Finger: “Estudos para machete, arranhados por Manuel Joaquim Monteiro”. Das Instrument, seine Schatulle und die Noten sind älter als 100 Jahre.

English Translation:

A Machete (Machete de braco) by Octavianno João Nunes, Madeira, early 19th century.
Descant Guitar from Portugal with four strings, string length 333mm, body length 224mm
Original label: Octavianno Joao Nunes / Artista de Violas Francezas / Guitarras, Rebecas, Rabecoes / e Machetes / Rua de S. Paulo No. 35 A / Madeira.
In original box, 540mm x 160mm x 90mm, red velvet inside, manuscript notebook and leaves in standard notation with instructions for proper fingering: “Estudos para machete, arranhados por Manuel Joaquim Monteiro” [Studies for the machete arranged by Manuel Joaquim Monteiro]. The instrument, its box and the music-paper are older than 100 years.

… and indicated he was willing to sell.

Because the instrument had bridge pins, end pins, and tuning-peg ornaments made of ivory an export license had to be purchased; then proper shipping and packing arranged—and the purchase money raised and wired to Europe. In mid-September, a Monday, I stopped by the air freight terminal at Tampa International and picked up the machete on my way home from the UCF library in Orlando. It arrived the previous Friday but since Customs didn’t work weekends I had to wait until Monday for it to clear.

Back at the house I removed the lid of the wooden packing crate and pulled out the cased machete; it was swaddled in bubble wrap and packing tape. The case looked to be vinhatico—persea indica—but it could have been mahogany. On his first voyage in H.M.S. Endeavour in 1768, Capt. James Cook stopped at Madeira and for six days his naturalist, Joseph Banks, trekked about the environs of Funchal collecting samples of the fauna and flora. Banks was particularly interested in a type of lumber he had seen in England said to be from Madeira:

“We tried here to learn what species of wood it is which has been imported into England, and is now known to cabinetmakers by the name of Madeira mahogany, but without much success, as we could not learn that any wood had been exported from the island by that name. The wood, however, of the tree called here Vigniatico, Laurus indicus, Linn. [Persea indica, Spreng.], bids fair to be the thing, it being of a fine grain and brown like mahogany, from which it is difficult to distinguish it, as is well shown at Dr. Heberden’s house, where, in a book-case, vigniatico and mahogany were placed close by each other, and were only to be known asunder by the first being of not quite so dark a colour as the other.”1

Nunes macheteThe machete was exquisite. The turned ivory appointments, back and sides of Juniperus oxycedrus, spruce soundboard, rosewood bridge with finely wrought moustaches of miniature oak leaves and acorns, and the remains of a strap of colorful, twisted silk still attached to the peg head. It weighed in at fewer than seven ounces. The maker, Octaviano João Nunes da Paixão (1812-1874), is considered to be the most important among a handful of violeiros—stringed-instrument makers—known to have lived and worked in Madeira in the 19th century; a few of Nunes’ instruments survive in museums in Europe and in private collections in the U.S. However, the real treasure was not the machete, remarkable as it was, but the cache of old paper folded double on top of the instrument—the Estudos so casually described in Dr. Stradner’s email.

Estudos para Machete

Until recently, written music for the machete wasn’t rare; it was non-existent. With the exception of a few tantalizing bibliographic ghosts, the closest anyone could come to knowing the 19th century repertoire of the machete was from reading descriptions of the performers and the music they made in contemporary travel guides and memoirs. “Among the instruments which bear a prominent part in concerts and serenades, is the machete,” the American John Dix wrote in 1843. “There are two or three performers in Funchal who have attained a wonderful proficiency in playing on it. Their execution is astonishing.”2 Long-time English resident Robert White agreed: “… in the hands of an accomplished player, the machete is capable of much more pleasing harmony; and one is sometimes agreeably surprised to hear the fashionable music of our ball-rooms given with considerable effect, on what appears a very insignificant instrument.”3

All of that changed in late 2003 when Manuel Morais published a newly discovered manuscript collection of pieces for machete and guitar dated 1846. The music was just what Dix, White, and other visitors to Madeira described: fashionable dance music (and several themes with variations) of a high musical standard requiring a virtuoso technique. The music was composed by Cândido Drumond de Vasconcelos (fl. 1841-188?) and arranged by Manoel Joaquim Monteiro Cabràl (fl. 1846-1850) “for the use of” Joanna Mathilde Beda de Freitas (ca.1833-1864), possibly a student of Cabràl.4

Little is known of either man. In 1841 Drumond took part in a concert at the Sociedade Philarmonica in Funchal which was reviewed in a local newspaper, O Defensor. In the critic’s opinion “… it would be difficult to find a rival to Mr. Drumond.” He “played exquisitely” and the audience judiciously rewarded the performer with “thunderous applause.”5 Cabràl was born ca. 1800 and married on April 27, 1850, about the time he set his Estudos down on paper.6

In the 1930s, no fewer than four methods for the machete, (or braguinha, as it was then known) were reported to exist. One was owned by a violinist and the other three were dispersed by their owner to three Madeirans, one of whom emigrated to Hawai‘i. One of these methods ended up in the possession of Carlos Santos, a journalist and folk historian who described the primer in his book Trovas e Bailados da Ilha: Estudo Folclore Musical da Madeira:

Principios de Machete, arranjado
Por A.J. Barboza
Fx.al Madeira.

According to Santos, the Barbosa Principios included “… an illustration of the neck of the instrument and an indication of the tuning, followed by various exercises, which the author entitled ‘Leap of 3rds‘ and ‘Leap of linked 3rds‘ (double notes), Slurs and others of various intervals” as well as thirty-three pages of music. António José Barbosa (fl. 1870) was a teacher of the machete but nothing else about him—such as his dates of birth and death—is currently known.7

The Manuscripts

Cabràl, Manoel Joaquim Monteiro (ca. 1800-18??). Autograph musical manuscript, signed. Estudos para Machete / Arranjados / Por / Manoel Joaquim Monteiro Cabràl, ca. 1850. An unrecorded method for the Madeiran machete. Oblong quarto, (215 x 295 mms.). Sewn. 8 pages, including title. Notated in black ink with annotations in pencil on laid, hand-ruled 10-stave musical manuscript paper bearing the partial watermarks of Italian papermakers Giacomo and Cosimo Cini. Together with: Autograph musical manuscript. Pieces for one and two machetes, ca. 1850. Folio, (242 x 302 mms.). Single leaf, 2 pp. Notated in black ink on wove, hand-ruled 12-stave musical manuscript paper.


The Estudos manuscript includes exercises in chromatic and diatonic scales and trills in addition to five pieces of music (seven if we include the separate folio leaf) and all of the items as detailed in the Barbosa Prinicipios by Santos, with identical headings and in the exact same order. Is it possible the Estudos represent an earlier version of the Principios since the Cabràl manuscript precedes the Barbosa by about 20 years? How likely is it that both used an even earlier proto-machete method as their source? The similarity in the two primers would seem to be more than a coincidence.

The Paraph

In his earliest email to me, Dr. Stradner identified the author of the Estudos as Monteiro Mabral, a point on which I didn’t question him, chalking it up to a typo in his missive or illegibility or simply a misreading of the manuscript. The description of the items I received (in German and English, as referenced above) dropped the last name entirely. I was reasonably certain the author’s name was Cabràl, and equally sure he was the same person who had arranged the Vasconcelos pieces for machete and guitar. If it was Cabràl, that was great and my hunch would be correct; if not, it was somebody new and unknown and that was fine, too.

titleversoWhen I examined the manu-script the source of the spelling “Mabral” became clear. A casual perusal of the last name seemed to have a crossed-out letter “M” at the beginning, followed by “Cabràl.” I scanned the signature at 300dpi and looked at it in full resolution: the scratched out “M” was really an elaborate paraph or rubric made up from Cabràl’s initials, MJMC, the last of which ends in a flourish underscoring the other letters in the last name. The paraph is significant because it identifies the manuscript as an autograph, not merely the work of a copyist.8


A modern edition of the Estudos is being prepared for publication; the music is engraved and a facsimile of the manuscript has been created for inclusion. All that is lacking is the appropriate front matter, of which this monograph is a first, albeit incomplete, draft. The reinstatement of a definitive machete repertoire by Dr. Morais, along with the discovery of this sole-surviving pedagogical manual are exciting developments in the quest for deeper knowledge and understanding of what was arguably the most significant musical instrument of the 19th-century Madeirense.


  1. Joseph Banks, Journal of the Right Honorable Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Joseph D. Hooker, ed. (London, 1896) 6-7.
  2. John A. Dix, A Winter in Madeira; And a Summer in Spain and Florence, 2nd Edition (New York, 1851) 72-73.
  3. Robert White, Madeira, Its Climate and Scenery (London, 1851) 38.
  4. Manuel Morais, ed., Cândido Drummond de Vasconcelos: Colecção de Peças para Machete (1846) (Casal de Cambra, 2003) 101-104. I am grateful to Prof. Morais for presenting me with a copy of this important publication.
  5. “A Sociedade Philarmonica”, O Defensor, Vol. II, No. 102, December 11, 1841. Drumond was also mentioned in passing in Platon de Vakcel’s articles about Madeiran music published in the Gazeta da Madeira, in 1866.
  6. Morais, Cândido Drumond de Vasconcellos, 101.
  7. Morais, Cândido Drumond de Vasconcellos, 43, 105.
  8. Paraphs were common in the 19th century and before, serving to authenticate a person’s autograph. The most famous American example is that of John Hancock whose name is synonymous with the word “signature.”

Text and images © 2007 by John King

Give me some wine, and let me speak a little.

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

“God gave the Portuguese a small country as a cradle but all the world as their grave.”—António Vieira, 17th century.

I was looking for the grave of Augusto Dias. It would have been about as old as the weathered marker in front of me, which I regarded with sober curiosity: a gray slab of crumbling, porous stone with pitted surfaces and ground off edges wearily upthrust through a rough-hewn granite base. Cratered by lichens and haired over with moss, the inscription was faint and without relief, as though melted, in the shadowless, muted light. I brushed the arc of letters—the name—with my fingertips, attempting to read it by touch, Braille-like, but the characters remained at large, elusive, anonymous.

The small congregation of Portuguese graves surrounding me lay laterally round the flank of Punchbowl Crater like a ruin, a few uneven rows of teetering, lonely memorials. Uphill, a multitude of impeccably cared for Buddhist monuments clustered together to honor issei ancestors; downhill, near the lava wall facing Pensacola Street, plots for the kama‘aina and privileged white oligarchy stretched out, royalists and republicans, patriots and revolutionaries, equal now in their final repose beneath the terraced, grass-covered hillock of Makiki Cemetery. Away to the south, the modern towers of bustling Honolulu rose against the sky; to the east, block upon block of tall hotels perched on the sandy apron of Waikiki Beach, squeezed between the rugged promontory of Diamond Head and the serene, blue Pacific.

Trade winds swept up the pitched grade where I knelt and compressed moist, low clouds against the leeward Ko‘olau, wringing out freshets of sweet, clear rainwater onto the slopes below. The showers had been invigorating in the summer heat as I made my way quickly through the cemetery, starting at street level and then zig-zaging up the hill, skimming over every chiseled epitaph. In Loving Memory. Beloved Father. Mother. Wife of. Infant Son. Daughter. Born. Died. There was the barrow of the historian and scholar Abraham Fornander who committed large tracts of Hawaiian oral history to the printed page before expiring in 1887. And there—there was the ossuary of the muenbotoke—289 nineteenth-century plantation workers from Japan who died without descendants to tend their graves.

To my right was the granite headstone of João Fernandes, a plumber from the island of Madeira who arrived in Honolulu in 1879. By his own account, João was the first person in Hawai‘i to play the Madeiran machete, the little four-string guitar we now call the ‘ukulele. Reminiscing in 1922, a year before his death, he recounted playing for Queen Lili‘uokalani, composer of the immortal Aloha O‘e, and for her brother Kalakaua, the Merry Monarch, Hawai‘i’s last king. “Good music that ukulele makes,” João mused. “Good for dance, for sing, for everything. I go out with August Dias and Joao Luiz Correa in the old days. We would go to the king’s bungalow. Lots of people came. Plenty kanakas. Much music, much hula, much kaukau, much drink. All time plenty drink. And King Kalakaua, he pay for all!” The old man suddenly became contemplative. “But now—now all pau [dead].”

João and his friend August—Augusto—Dias made the four-month voyage from Madeira to Honolulu together with more than four-hundred and twenty of their countrymen, including Correa and Dias’ common-law wife, Roselina, and their four daughters. Seeking to escape a cycle of poverty and famine brought on by the collapse of the Madeiran economy, the Madeirense migrated to Hawai‘i by the thousands beginning in 1878, lured by promises of easy money and a sub-tropical climate not unlike the one they were leaving behind. But once in Honolulu, representatives of the Hawaiian and Portuguese governments coerced Fernandes, Dias and the rest to sign up as contract laborers on the sugar plantations, hardy European stock to replace earlier immigrants from China against whom there was a great and malignant prejudice in Honolulu.

After several years working cane fields on the Big Island and Kaua‘i, Dias settled in Honolulu and resumed his former trade as a violeiro, or guitar maker. The first such craftsman to advertise his services in the Honolulu City Directory in 1884, Dias could count King Kalakaua among the influential patrons who frequented his shop at 11 King Street. In addition to encouraging the revival of traditional Hawaiian performing arts, particularly hula, Kalakaua popularized the ‘ukulele among his subjects, so much so that it quickly became the instrument of choice to accompany mele and the gentile hula ku‘i. Late in life, Dias’ eldest daughter, Christina—Auntie Tina—related that her father “enjoyed being part of the scene at Kalakaua’s court” and recalled that as a young woman she was often asked to translate for Augusto because he spoke very little English. This included conveying orders for custom-made guitars and ‘ukulele from the king, who spoke very little Portuguese.

When Dias died in 1915—two weeks before the opening of the P.P.I.E. in San Francisco—the Honolulu papers reported that his remains would be interred at Makiki Cemetery, but a 1980s survey of the site failed to record his grave. After spending two weeks at the State Archives researching the lives of Dias and the other early guitar makers of Hawai‘i, I was on my way home, headed for the airport with little time to spare. Impulsively, I veered off H-1 and careened up the narrow streets of Makiki to the cemetery, hoping to find the grave of Augusto and pay homage to the ‘ukulele maker of the last king of Hawai‘i.

With both knees planted and sinking in the hallowed ground, and my torso cantilevered out and over, I leaned in to get a closer look at the rough tablet. This was it, I thought. The end of the line. The last grave in the last row in the only Portuguese section of the cemetery. And the clock was ticking. I had a plane to catch. If only I had more time, there might be a break in the overcast. I reached out once more. The surface of the stone was sharp and wet against my fingers and wept where I touched it, sending angular rills of tear-like droplets down the rock face. And then it happened. The clouds relented, admitting effulgent streams of sunlight that swirled across the hillside, casting crisp, black shadows. The fuzzy, run-together letters of the inscription drew up in tight focus. It was in Portuguese:

Augusto Dias / Faleceu / A 5 de Feve de 1915 / com / 73 Annos de Edade

[Augusto Dias / Passed Away / On February the 5th, 1915 / at / 73 Years of Age]

Image of Augusto Dias courtesy Jim Tranquada
Text © 2007 by John King

The ghosts of Ernest Kaai

Saturday, February 10th, 2007

emember the “free-roaming, vaporous, full-torso apparition” at the New York Public Library in the opening sequence of the 1984 film Ghostbusters? It spewed cards from the card catalog, blew books from the stacks and scared the socks off the prim librarian. Only in the movies, right? Well, think again. Ghosts do exist. Particularly in libraries. I’ve seen one.

Let me tell you my story …


He stares out at me from the dust jacket collage of George Kanahele’s Hawaiian Music and Musicians, a hand-tinted taropatch player perched on the left shoulder of King Kalakaua and flanked by Tandy Mackenzie and the Brothers Cazimero. It’s Ernest Kaai—Hawaii’s Music Man—the preeminent ‘ukulele player of his generation. I flip to the entry on Kaai; page 193. There he is again, same picture but cropped to just a head shot with the caption “Ernest K. Kaai. From his book The Ukulele.”

The three pages of text on Kaai in HMM probably comprise the most extensive biography of the man ever written, appropriately brief but full of wonderful facts: “…mandolin virtuoso, vocalist, publisher, composer/arranger, teacher, bandleader, impresario. Performed at Yukon Exposition in Seattle (1906); toured Australia (1911); recorded for Columbia in Honolulu (1911); featured at San Francisco and San Diego expositions (1915-1916); published ‘ukulele instruction manual (1916).”

As far as knowing his way around the bouncing flea, Kanahele observes:

“On the ‘ukulele Kaai was a virtuoso performer. Johnny Noble, in fact, called him “Hawaii’s greatest ukulele player.” In his time, he was undoubtedly the most knowledgeable person on the instrument. Certainly he was the first to study it systematically, as he published the first explanatory and instructional books on the subject: The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar (Honolulu: Wall, Nichols & Co., 1916).”

Hey, I think. I have a copy of Kaai’s 1916 method in my stack of ‘ukulele primers. It’s a beauty, too: full-folio with chocolate-brown paper wrappers and a marvelous half-tone frontispiece portrait of Kaai. But something’s not right. The title of my Kaai 1916 is The Ukulele and How It’s Played, not The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and the picture isn’t the one referenced by Kanahele. And it was published by The Hawaiian News Company, not Wall, Nichols. And I have a bunch of ‘ukulele methods published in California in the early 1910s. Way before 1916. What’s up with that? And would Kaai really have published two different methods with two different Honolulu publishers in the same year?


I sneak away during a family vacation to spend a couple of precious hours doing research. Through the internet, via telnet, I learn there is a copy of a Kaai method at the Hamilton Library with the same title and publisher as the one in Kanahele—The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar—but apparently with a copyright date of 1910! I’m here to scope it out. Most of the books in the Hawaiian Collection have to be paged and the Kaai is no exception. I surrender my driver’s license as collateral, fill out the page form and turn it in at the desk.

And wait.

And then I have it in my hands. Octavo, paper wraps with a nicely engraved illustration of an ukulele. Entitled: The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It, REVISED[!!] 1910.

And the picture of Kaai is …

… not the one in Kanahele. Arghh!!

I make a photocopy of the damn thing …


… and drive back to my brother’s condo hoping no one noticed I was gone.


I’m ensconced in front of my PowerMac 7500 surfing the web, googling kaai, and up comes an index to aid in locating Hawaiian songs in published Hawaiian songbooks:


Project to index Hawaiian songs
in published Hawaiian songbooks

compiled by Amy K. Stillman
December 1988

I scroll down the screen to the entry I’m looking for:

Kaai, Ernest K. The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It. Honolulu: Wall Nichols, Ltd., 1906.

There it is. Holy Moley, 1906. That would explain the 1910 revised edition at the Hamilton Library. I dash off an email to Dr. Stillman at the University of Michigan and ask where the Kaai 1906 is located.


I open the email with the subject line, RE: KAAI 1906; Dr. Stillman has been gracious enough to respond to my query. She informs me she made copies of the incipits of all the books in her index—and their locations—but can’t find any of the references for the ‘ukulele methods. They’re missing. However, she suggests I try some of the libraries she visited on the East Coast, one in particular:

The New York Public Library.


I call the NYPL reference desk and ask if they have the Kaai 1906. The librarian puts me on hold. It’s an interlude full of expectation. She gets back on the line and says no, they don’t have it.


I try all the other East Coast libraries listed on Dr. Stillman’s index including the Boston Public Library, the Loeb Music Library at Harvard University, the Phillips Library at the Peabody Museum, the Hay Library at Brown University and the Library of Congress.

No dice; I’ve been slimed.

Librarians and researchers have a name for books that show up in bibliographies and other reference works but don’t otherwise exist. They call them ghosts.

The Kaai 1906 is a ghost.


After ten days at the Hawai‘i State Archives and the State Library I have added significantly to my research: I now know the Kaai 1906 is not in the collections of either of those institutions, nor is it in the Bishop Museum Library, according to the librarian there. I’ve found wonderful things; just not the Kaai 1906 method. I’m packed for the flight back to Florida.


I occasionally thumb through Kanahele, randomly reading the entries. As always, there is Kaai, peering back at me, an enigma, a phantasm. But that image had to come from somewhere. Over time, I learn that the info in Kanahele is not always reliable. Take the entry on Kaai. The year Kanahele cites for Kaai’s method is 1916 when it should have been 1906 (I was certain, based on Amy Stillman’s research; the 1910 REVISED edition which suggested an earlier version; that damn photo of Kaai, and a receipt from Kaai’s studio dated 1906 for six lessons and an “ukulele book” that Tom Walsh showed me). A typo? Not likely; Kanahele cites the date 1916 twice in his entry on Kaai and repeats it in his entry for the ‘ukulele. Just a coincidence there really was a Kaai 1916 method, just not the one Kanahele cited? Oh, well. A book without mistakes is a mistake, right?

One day I notice the credit line on the headshot of Kaai, the apparition:

“Courtesy Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society.”

I’ve seen that credit dozens of times, had hoped to check it out in 2001 but the HMCS Library was closed in August 2001, at least it was when I was there. It’s one of a grocery list of disappointments I’ve had to suffer on my research trips to Honolulu, from the prolonged closure of the Hawaiian Collection at UH due to asbestos removal to the flash flood in Manoa Valley in 2004 that closed that same institution a week before I arrived.

(OK, like a trip to the islands for the most pedestrian of reasons wouldn’t have some pleasant, if unplanned, fringe benefits. Heck, the library’s closed; guess I’ll have to hang at the beach. Bummer.)

I mull calling the Hawaiian Mission Children’s Society Library and after a few weeks, I do. They have it. Will they send me photocopies of the incipits? It’s fragile but they agree. The envelope arrives; it’s proof positive that the Kaai 1906 exists. It’s no ghost.

But curiously, Kanahele’s Kaai 1916 is as ghostly as they come and cited throughout the literature now for nearly three decades.


hey say you always find the things you’ve lost in the last place you look. The HMCS Library wasn’t simply the last place I looked, it was the last place to look. I visited the library in 2004, compared their Kaai 1906 to a copy of the Revised 1910 and noted the differences—not many: re-engraved, some corrections, of course a different picture of Kaai—the one in Hawaiian Music and Musicians. The head librarian, Marilyn Reppun, was kind enough to make a photocopy for my records which I picked up the next day.

Recently I acquired an original of the Kaai 1906, from a Goodwill store in Oregon. Black paper wrappers printed with gold ink, a small octavo-size, just right to slip into an ‘ukulele case. And do you know what’s funny? It has one less piece than the copy at the HMCS Library. Nothing is missing from either one; there are just two states. I believe mine is the earlier: on page 21 (out of 39 pp.), Kaai references ‘preludes’ when there is only one prelude to be found. In the HMCS Library copy, a second prelude is printed on page 40, the verso of page 39, which is blank in my copy. It was apparently left out of the first printing and inserted out of sequence in the next. What’s wonderful about the copy I have is that it’s filled with annotations and corrections by Kaai himself. The original owner obviously took lessons from “Hawaii’s Music Man.”

I mean. Honolulu, 1906. You wanna learn how to play the ‘ukulele.

Who you gonna call?

Text © 2007 by John King

Hiding in plain sight: Kolomona

Friday, February 9th, 2007

The Hawaiian MusicianI first came across this beautiful image in Nathaniel Emerson’s pioneering work, Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula (Washington, D.C., 1909). Captioned ‘Hawaiian Musician Playing on the Uku-lele’ and printed with the permission of the artist, Hubert Vos (1855-1935), I was dumbfounded that this masterful painting was virtually unknown in the lexicon of ‘ukulele iconography. I wondered what had become of the original. Nearly as surprising was my next encounter with Vos’ ‘ukulele player. While perusing a copy of The Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. XVIII (Oxford, 1989) at the Poynter Library, USF St Petersburg, I stumbled upon this citation:

1900 Century Mag. June 164/2 Kolomono … holds the ukulele, a stringed instrument which may or may not be indigenous to the island.

I hightailed it over to the main library at the Tampa campus of USF where there is a complete collection of The Century Magazine and combed the stacks for Vol. LX (New Series Vol. XXXVIII) No. 2, June 1900, page 166 and there he was in all his photo-lithographic splendor, and with a name to boot.

Solomon In His Glory

Kolomono, as he is termed in the musical tongue of Hawaii, or Solomon, as he was baptized, shows the jovial, pleasure-loving features of his race as he holds the ukulele, a stringed instrument which may or may not be indigenous to the island. He is a civilized native, and the son of one, and his raiment is not like that which Captain Cook found there a century and more ago. He is a minstrel and cab-driver, leader of sports and merriment, one of the “characters” of Honolulu. In his gay, frank smile one divines the reason why it was found easy to oust the poor queen, but one is left still in surprise that it should have been thought necessary to do so with such violence. When selected as the best-looking, yet most typical, Hawaiian by the artist, Solomon was indeed in his glory; he was like a Venetian gondolier who has been chosen as the best oarsman for a regatta, or a Dublin jarvey who has won the prize for the jauntiest jaunting-car. Bubbling over with satisfaction, he could only give vent to his pride by ejaculating, “Why, oh, why was I born so lucky?”

According to the article, Vos, a naturalized American citizen from Holland, had been a commissioner (from Holland) to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where

… he had a chance to see a great range of ethnic types, not merely in the Plaisance, but at the Congress of Religions. It was then for the first time borne in on him that we have no really good pictures of the different races of the globe. Photographs there are, and on these everybody relies. But the photograph gives too much and too little: too much of the accidental and unimportant, and often of the ugly; too little of the soul, the selected, the synthetic. As a portrait-painter Mr. Vos believes that a likeness should express ancestry and race and the soul of the individual.

“Kolomono,” which is signed and dated 1898, was exhibited in New York City in February 1900 at the Union League Club. The New York Times critic opined “… the artist is a brilliant colorist … and a virile and graceful draughtsman. His Hawaiian flower girl and Hawaiian minstrel well exemplify the extreme sensuality of the Hawaiian type.” Vos was married to an Hawaiian princess, Kaikilani of Hilo, the former Mrs. Lorimer Graham, and doubtless, she must get some of the credit for her husband’s Hawaiian eye. Kolomono’s lauhala hat and koa wood ukulele (is that a Dias, Santo, or Nunes?) are exquisitely rendered.

It was shortly after I released my Bach CD  in 2001 that I learned Vos’ painting (titled Kolomona: The Hawaiian Troubador) was part of the permanent collection of the Honolulu Academy of Art, a gift of Henry B. Clark, Jr. in 1994. A year later the Art Academy produced a CD entitled The Art of Solo ‘Ukulele (I’m grateful to Byron Yasui for my copy) which included performances by Byron, Benny Chong, Gordon Mark, and Jake Shimabukuro. Not surprisingly, the cover art featured a full-color reproduction of the Vos painting. 

Since then, Kolomona has shown up a few more times. The Hawaiian Historical Society used an image of the 1900 Century Magazine litho for the cover of The Hawaiian Journal of History, Vol. 37, 2003 which featured an article by Jim Tranquada and me (‘A New History of the Origins and Development of the ‘Ukulele, 1838-1915’); Spirit of Aloha (November-December 2005), the in-flight magazine of Aloha Airlines, used the same image as a full-page illustration to accompany an article I wrote entitled ‘How I Learned to Play the Ukulele.’ Recently, at Byron’s suggestion, I provided Malamalama, the alumni magazine of the University of Hawai‘i, with several illustrations, including Kolomona. It accompanied an article by UH alum George Furukawa called ‘An ‘Ukulele Comeback’ (Vol. 32, No. 1, January 2007).

E komo mai! Welcome back, Kolomona!

Text © 2007 by John King