Ho‘o Nalu

How I Learned to Play the ‘Ukulele

March 6th, 2008

(Without Really Trying)

by John King

et me tell you a secret. The ‘ukulele is Portuguese. It’s true. A trio of Portuguese woodworkers from the island of Madeira, who emigrated to Hawai‘i in 1879, began making the little four-string guitars in Honolulu in the 1880s. But they didn’t call them ‘ukuleles back then; instead, they used the instrument’s Portuguese name: machete (pronounced mah-SHET). The machete had been popular with Madeirans for hundreds of years; in fact, it was their national instrument. One American, a senator named Dix, who spent a winter season at Madeira in the 1840s, reported that in the right hands a machete could produce very pretty music, especially when accompanied by a guitar or cello, but by itself, it was thin and meager. “It is an invention of the island,” he wrote, “and one of which the island has no great cause to be proud. It is not probable that the machete will ever emigrate from Madeira.”

Ladies and gentlemen, please give it up for Sen. John Dix, visionary.

Actually, the little twanger went anywhere the Madeira islanders did, which was just about everywhere: Capetown, Honolulu, the Antilles, Asia, North and South America. In the 1850s, an Oxford clergyman and author named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson snapped the first-ever pictures of the tiny, toylike instrument. The subjects of that photo shoot were three young sisters—Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell—each dressed in Madeiran lace and holding a machete. Dodgson, who is remembered today by his pen name, Lewis Carroll, was especially fond of six-year-old Alice. You remember Alice, too, don’t you? In Wonderland?

Brushes with greatness aside, it wasn’t until the Madeirans and their guitarettes arrived at the fertile islands of Hawai‘i that the popularity of the little instrument really took root and grew. And grew. First, it was subjected to a complete makeover: constructed of native Hawaiian koa wood instead of the traditional til and pine, given a revamped tuning, a different repertoire and a new name. Secondly, troupes of Hawaiian performers with ‘ukuleles fanned out across America, performing at world’s fairs, chautauquas and vaudevilles, making names for themselves and generating a lot of interest in Hawai‘i, Hawaiian music and culture. Thirdly, when the seventeen million visitors who attended the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 went crazy for Hawaiian music and the ‘ukulele, the event sparked a nationwide mania for the instrument that didn’t subside until the Great Depression.

About that makeover: Woodworkers did a brisk business in Madeira, making furniture, cabinets and curios, as well as stringed instruments. They knew their stuff, and why not—madeira means wood in Portuguese—but there was one kind of wood they didn’t have: koa. Acacia koa Gray, sometimes called Hawaiian mahogany, had been revered for centuries by Native Hawaiians, who used it for their canoes and calabashes. Prized for its deep red color, curly grain and capacity to take a high polish, it was—is—arguably the most beautiful wood in the world, and grows only in Hawai‘i. Garbed in Hawaiian koa, the little machete took on a whole new luster. Today, a 1930s-vintage Martin 5K ukulele (K for koa)—the “holy grail” of ukedom—will set you back about $10K, if you can find one for sale.

The ‘ukulele’s famous my-dog-has-fleas tuning was actually borrowed from another Madeiran instrument, a five-string guitar called the rajao (pronounced rah-ZHOW). The original machete tuning is open-G; when and why it was changed to my-dog-has-fleas is one of those little mysteries that always leads to more questions than answers. In the early 1890s, a fellow named Holstein, who headed up the music department of the Hawaiian News Co., published a pamphlet entitled Chords of the Taro-patch Guitar, which is what Honoluluans called the rajao in those days. Holstein, an astute businessman, also included directions for tuning the “‘ukulele-guitar”; you tune it, he said, the same as you tune the top four strings of the taro-patch. Whether this reflected the practice of the day, or whether Holstein effected a whole new trend in tuning, is impossible to say. It’s the old riddle of the chicken and the egg. Even the origins of the mnemonic my-dog-has-fleas is lost to us. They do tell a humorous story about it in Honolulu, though. A keiki [child] walks into the Kamaka ‘ukulele factory on South Street and tells Sam Kamaka, “I want to buy a flea string for my ‘ukulele.” When Sam suggests the kid means a “C” string, the little keiki replies, “No, I don’t! When my kumu [teacher] tunes my ‘ukulele, she sings ‘My-dog-has-fleas’ and it’s the flea string that broke!”

Recently a controversy arose involving players who tuned their G strings—that’s the “my” string—down an octave, so-called low-G tuning. The traditionalists, using—you guessed it—high-G tuning, bemoaned the modernists destroying the one thing that made the ‘ukulele unique, all for the sake of a few extra notes. In the interest of full disclosure, I have to tell you, I’m a high-G man, but I don’t feel the least bit threatened by those players who’ve succumbed to the Dark Side. Understandably, not everyone feels the way I do. One of my high-G colleagues told me about a recurring dream he has where he drives legions of low-G players over the Pali—Kamehameha style—thereby uniting the Islands under one tuning, forever and ever. One other wrinkle: Even though I tune to high-G, I do it starting from the other end of the jingle, fleas-has-dog-my. I wonder what Jonathan Swift would have made of that?

awaiian music at the turn of the 20th Century, the period when the ‘ukulele started to become popular, was often described as weird—not outer-space weird, but exotic—and sensuous, because it was used to accompany the “hula-hula” dance. When missionaries began teaching the Hawaiians how to sing hymns—the ancients didn’t have familiar conventions like melody and harmony—the natives took the square-sounding tunes and rhythms, set them to Hawaiian poetry and created a new type of musical expression: nahe nahe, or sweet Hawaiian music. The soft, vowel-rich Hawaiian language, with its unusual accents, combined with the simple harmonies of Christian hymnody, produced a beautiful, compelling music of almost universal appeal. And this “weird and sensuous” music was made by men and women who sang while thrumming out an accompaniment on their ‘ukulele.

But how did the machete end up with a name like ‘ukulele? In Hawaiian, ‘ukulele literally means the louse—‘uku—that jumps—lele—in honor of that other European import, Ctenocephalides Felis, the cat flea. This is one of those little mysteries where there is one question and a lot of possible answers. On a multiple-choice test (I didn’t tell you there’d be a quiz?), the options might look something like this:

A. The performer’s fingers flew so fast, they looked like jumping fleas.

B. King Kalakaua’s vice chamberlain was small and nimble like a flea, so he acquired the nickname ‘Ukulele. He was also a gifted musician and played the machete so finely that the instrument became eponymous.

C. ‘Ukulele has another, poetic meaning: the gift that came from afar.

D. Some Hawaiians likened the machete to the ‘ukeke, an indigenous string instrument. They called it the ‘ukeke-lele, or dancing ‘ukeke, which was shortened to ‘ukê-lele, and then changed to ‘ukulele.

E. None of the above.

At the time, no one thought it was very important how the ‘ukulele got its name; at least, if anyone knew, they weren’t telling. It wasn’t until the instrument achieved worldwide acclaim that people started wondering. The result was that all of these explanations, and a few others besides, were trotted out years after the fact. So take your best shot. Poll the audience. Call a friend. Final answer? Your guess is as good as mine.

Did you know the ‘ukulele has a head, neck and body, and a slew of other anthropomorphic features, including a voice? Accomplished players are said to make their instruments sing. There are soprano ukes, concert ukes, tenor and baritone ukes, each bigger than the last; one Chicago company even marketed a bass uke in the 1930s. The tenor seems to be the most popular choice for players in Hawai‘i today, but when Jack London visited Honolulu in 1907, ‘ukuleles came in only one size, the soprano. London likened the ‘ukulele to a young guitar; he even managed to work it into a few of his short stories and novels. Curiously, the only difference between a soprano and a tenor (or a concert) ‘ukulele is the size of the instrument. The tuning and range—whether high-G or low-G—are the same for all three. Imagine the havoc it would create at the opera if tenors were just taller, wider, deeper versions of sopranos.

n the early 1920s, after it had enjoyed a great vogue spanning the better part of a decade—and a world war—the ‘ukulele began to garner a number of detractors. Since it had been advertised as an instrument anyone could learn to play, nearly everyone tried. Those stricken with crummy-uke-player syndrome (CUPS—each letter is pronounced) were chronically unaware of their affliction; obliviousness was symptomatic. And so they played on. And on.

CUPS made some wax poetic, including this anonymous piece, which appeared in a newspaper in 1917:

Lines to a Ukalale
(You call it “you-kal-laylie” when you call
it anything fit to print.)

I need no nerve tonic
when neighbors harmonic
Hold concerts all hours of the night.
I’ll stand for the fiddle,
though hoping the lid’ll
Be clamped down before morning light.
When some blithe soprano
drowns out the py-ano
I smile at her stepladder yelp.
I know how to suffer, but,
say, there’s one duffer
Who’ll find me much rougher—
the whelp!
He tortures me daily
With his ukalale,
That weird ukalale—
Oh, help!

Make no mistake, despite their popular appeal, ‘ukulele—and ‘ukulele players—irritated a lot of people. When the last of the original Portuguese uke makers died in Honolulu in 1922, newspapers across the U.S. mainland scurried to print this story:

Hawaiians Not Guilty

The death in Honolulu of Manuel Nunes discloses information that leads to the complete vindication of the Hawaiians of the charge of inventing the ukulele. Nunes was the originator of this instrument. In his idle hours he fashioned a guitar-like contraption from a cigar box and a few strings. Others developed and “improved” upon the thing, which has been pestering civilization ever since. It is hard to suspect a serious minded islander of indulging in that sort of mischief.

Some real literary heavyweights were inspired to put pen to paper while under the spell of the uke. Two Englishmen come to mind. The first, Rupert Brooke, sailed to Hawai‘i in 1913; his ode to the ‘ukulele is nothing less than a sonnet:


Warm perfumes like a breath from vine and tree
Drift down the darkness. Plangent, hidden from eyes,
Somewhere an eukaleli thrills and cries
And stabs with pain the night’s brown savagery.
And dark scents whisper; and dim waves creep to me,
Gleam like a woman’s hair, stretch out, and rise;
And new stars burn into the ancient skies,
Over the murmurous soft Hawaiian sea.

And I recall, lose, grasp, forget again,
And still remember, a tale I have heard, or known
An empty tale, of idleness and pain,
Of two that loved—or did not love—and one
Whose perplexed heart did evil, foolishly,
A long while since, and by some other sea.

I’ve been told with absolute authority that the last bit is about Adam and Eve and their fall from grace. I believe it. And if there were “eukalelis” in the Garden of Eden, it truly must have been Paradise.

You probably noticed that Brooke did an even worse job of spelling ‘ukulele than our first, anonymous poet did: eukaleli, ukalele. Writer Malcolm Lowry spelled it u-k-e-l-e-l-e, which is actually in the dictionary as an alternative to u-k-u-l-e-l-e. As a young man, Lowry’s ambition had been to be a professional ‘ukulele player, but, tragically, he was one of those people beset with CUPS. Before his death in 1957, he wrote:


Malcolm Lowry
Late of the Bowery
His prose was flowery
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily
And died playing the ukelele.

ome people may tell you the ‘ukulele is easy to play, but don’t you believe them. Like most instruments, it’s easy to play badly and hard to play well. I’ve learned a lot about the uke—and myself—since I started playing in 1960, while living in ‘Ewa Beach. I was 6 years old. My mother played and one day I picked up her Kamaka pineapple—so-called because the body has an oval shape, like a pineapple, instead of a figure eight. The first thing I recognized was that playing the uke (which we all pronounced colloquially, ook) was not as easy as everyone had said it was. It was downright difficult. The second thing I noticed, after fumbling around for half an hour, was that I had absolutely no talent. Now, what seems like an inauspicious start was really a series of valuable life lessons. Although it took me a few years to realize it, in that first half-hour I had learned—or at least been introduced to—some important concepts: Don’t believe everything everyone tells you; be honest with yourself; talent is relative—those who learn quicker than you do are talented, and those who don’t, aren’t; anytime someone tells you something is easy to learn, it’s probably because they want to sell you lessons. At least I wasn’t a candidate for CUPS. I knew that I sucked.

Over the years I got a guitar, took a bunch of lessons and learned how to play. It was not that I wanted to learn. I was just obsessed with the idea of playing. Because the guitar and the lessons had been an investment made on my behalf, my parents forced me to practice thirty minutes every day. My musical ability seemed to evolve at a geologic clip characterized by long periods of stasis punctuated with sudden forward lurches. Through it all I would occasionally take up my mother’s pineapple, strum it and give myself a progress report. Invariably, the verdict was: I was a terrible uke player. After three decades of this my brain rebelled. No way. It wasn’t possible. I had learned to play the guitar. Classical, no less. I was even teaching guitar at an expensive liberal arts college. If I couldn’t play the uke, which is just a small guitar, then it must be the instrument I was using, right? At the time, I was ready to concede Mom’s old Kamaka was good for nothing more than hanging on the wall—or turning into fancy koa-wood kindling. But then I decided to try one more thing. In my classical studies I’d learned that guitars had once been tuned “my-dog-has-fleas,” like ‘ukuleles. Of course, musicologists had a proper academic name for it: re-entrant tuning.

In the time of J.S. Bach—some years before Capt. James Cook stumbled upon the island he called Owyhee—guitarists armed with re-entrantly tuned instruments had pioneered a style of playing they called campanela, which means little bell sounds. The bottom line is, they played each note of a melody on a different string, creating a sound like a harp—or little, pealing bells—where notes over-rang one another. I taught myself an appropriate Bach tune using the campanela technique and applied it to my mother’s pineapple. It was a revelation. The instrument had a voice and when I played, it sang to me. Since then, I’ve recorded a few ‘ukulele CDs, published a couple of collections of uke pieces and played around the country at various music festivals. I don’t think any of that is particularly significant; what is important is that I never gave up on the ‘ukulele, or myself. If I had, I never would have discovered my aptitude for playing. That discovery—an epiphany, really—was a big relief. Those things you hear when you’re a kid, like “slow and steady wins the race” and “good things come to those who wait” and “talent is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration” have been revealed to me in my life in unexpected ways, involving ‘ukuleles. And tuning does make a difference: you can’t play campanela style with a uke tuned to low G.

I’ve given a few workshops in the past year and it’s great to see the numbers of people excited about making music with their ‘ukuleles. None of them seem too interested in learning the campanela style of playing, but they do express their appreciation for how beautiful it sounds. The truth is it’s a crazy way to play the uke; ease of execution is all but sacrificed, subordinated to whatever it takes to get that shimmering, harplike sound. It works for me, because when I play it that way, the ‘ukulele sings. It may not work for you, but unless you try, you’ll never know. At the ‘Ukulele Guild of Hawai‘i Exhibition and Conference in Waikiki last November, someone was interested in buying one of my collections of uke music, but after attending my workshop she was worried it might be too difficult for her. “No, no, you should try it,” I assured her. “It’s easy.”

This essay was originally published in the November-December 2005 issue of Aloha Spirit: The Magazine of Aloha Airlines.

© 2005 by John King

Of Cabbages & Kings

February 25th, 2008

In search of the manufacturer of the Royal Hawaiian ‘ukulele

by John King

The maker of the Royal Hawaiian ‘ukulele remains a mystery. It is likely, but not proven, that they were produced by Kumalae for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

—Chuck Fayne, Finding Paradise

he imprimatur of royalty has always been coveted by musical instrument makers and other artisans, if only to further their reputations (and sales) among the trend-setting, well-bred, well-heeled hangers-on within the imperial circle. A case in point is Antonio Stradivari who was commissioned by the de’ Medici family, two Spanish kings and other, lesser nobles. The orders poured in, so much so Stradivari nixed outright gifting an entire quintet—as in two fiddles, a viola, a tenore, and a ’cello—to Philip V of Spain when that monarch visited Cremona in 1706. It would have set a bad precedent; Stradivari’s son Paolo disposed of that particular set of instruments after his father’s death in 1737.

And what did it matter if their majesties and their court were just dilettantes, mere dabblers? Did Gottfried Silbermann really concern himself with whether Frederick the Great (as renowned for his musical soirees at San-Souci as for his generaling on the Austrian frontier) could coax a sforzando, pianissimo, or legato out of the old organ-maker’s new-fangled pianoforte? It was enough that the instrument was there and waiting for Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach to tickle the ivories, or on the rare occasion when CPE’s old man, Johann Sebastian showed up in Berlin to improvise canons and fugues for Frederick and his guests. The upshot was, due to the royal association, Silbermann & Co. sold a lot of pianos.

t’s a fact that the uke—going by the name ukulele—made its earliest recorded appearance in Hawai‘i during a San-Souci-esque interlude with royalty aboard a British yacht in Honolulu Harbor. A threesome of young women kicked off the second half of the evening’s entertainment with an “ukulele trio.” A heretofore unpublished photograph of these three graces (two-out-of-three, at least—one of them is unidentified but may be the enigmatic “Miss Widemann,” daughter of a prominent Honoluluan) surfaced at the Hawai‘i State Archives during my research in 2001. Arrayed on the lawn at Ainahau, the Waikiki estate of Archibald Cleghorn and his wife, Princess Likelike, are Cleghorn’s daughters, Annie (holding an ‘ukulele), and her half-sister, Ka‘iulani, or more properly, Princess Victoria Ka‘iulani, the niece of King Kalakaua.

David Kalakaua has long been credited with the revival of Hawaiian culture after decades of stultifying missionary influence. He set the fashion for all to follow, introducing and popularizing the hula ku‘i, a muted, genteel dance imbued with Victorian restraint and Hawaiian grace to the accompaniment of guitars, taropatches and ukuleles. The king was also a man, and a man with king-sized appetites—Robert Louis Stevenson watched him down five bottles of champagne one afternoon—after which the mo‘i was “quite presentable, although perceptibly more dignified, at the end.”

HRHM’s tastes were the usual ones attributable to both prince and pauper, e.g.: wine, women and song. In 1922, João Fernandes reminisced about the parties he attended at Kalakaua’s bungalow:

I go out with August Dias [the guitar & ‘ukulele maker] and João Luiz Correa in the old days. We play for everybody; we have fine times. We would go to the king’s bungalow. The king wouldn’t stay in the palace—just when there was business. 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!

Stevenson’s step-daughter, Isobel Strong, wrote of the king’s love of music as well as his reputation for revelry:

[Kalakaua] would occasionally pick up a ukulele or a guitar and sing his favorite Hawaiian song, Sweet Lei-lei-hua, and once he electrified us by bursting into

          Hoky Poky winky wum
          How do you like your taters done?
          Boiled or with their jackets on?
          Sang the King of the Sandwich Islands.

Through all our gaiety there was always a deep respect for Kalakaua. None of us called him anything but “Your Majesty,” and never did I see anyone treat him with familiarity.

Indeed, the only impertinence I ever heard toward the King came from his own musicians, not the Royal Hawaiian band but that little group that played for him at our suppers and private parties. There were five of them, the best singers and performers on the ukulele and guitar in the whole islands.

We were on the beach at Waikiki, a party of us sitting on a row of chairs facing the sea. On a platform built over the water the musicians were playing lively hulas while we listened, admired the moonlit scene and drank champagne in goblets.

“It is too beautiful,” I called out to the King. “I never saw such a glorious night. Please, Your Majesty, ask the boys to play something appropriate to the occasion.”

Kalakaua held up his glass to be filled, and waving it at the musicians, called out an order in Hawaiian. They stopped for a moment, consulted together, and then broke into the song,

          The Old Man’s Drunk Again

Kalakaua was known to haunt the guitar shop of Dias—it was at 11 King Street, ‘ewa of ‘Iolani Palace—and because Dias had no English and the king had no Portuguese, Dias’ teenaged daughter, Christina, would facilitate conversations between the two. So, it’s not surprising that the only surviving ukuleles with a truly royal Hawaiian provenance were both made by the artful Madeiran (Ka‘iulani’s Dias uke is in a private collection in Honolulu; another Dias, given as a gift by Kalakaua, has wound up in the Bernice P. Bishop Museum). Late in her long life, Christina Dias Gilliland remarked that Kalakaua even allowed her father to brand his instruments with the royal seal. Sadly, no such instruments are known to have survived.

In 1916, another of Dias’ countrymen, Manuel Nunes, advertised the patronage of the “Royal Hawaiian Family” fully twenty-five years after Kalakaua’s death and twenty-three years after the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani! That such a royal endorsement could still be seen as beneficial nearly a quarter-century after the abolition of the monarchy was a testament to the continued high regard accorded the ali‘i in the Islands. Nunes wasn’t alone: in 1916 & 1917 the short-lived Hawaiian Ukulele Co. advertised themselves—albeit generically—as “makers of the Celebrated Royal Ukuleles.” These latter testimonials are second-hand at best; marketing, pure and simple.

evertheless, the ‘ukulele has a proud tradition of association with royalty not only in Hawai‘i but also in its former home, Madeira (in its former guise, the machete), and in England. Octavianno João Nunes, the Funchalese violeiro, reportedly presented an exquisite machete to the Empress of Brazil when she visited Madeira in the 19th century. Far more famously, Edward, Prince of Wales—no stranger to Hawai‘i, having visited Waikiki on a 210-day ‘round-the-world goodwill trip in 1920—was known to have played the ‘ukulele when he became enamored with American jazz in the mid-1920s. He even lent his title (or was it misappropriated?) to a high-end Harmony uke presented him by Johnny Marvin in 1928:

In February 1928, Marvin signed for a ten-week engagement at the Kit Kat Club in London. Around the same time he signed an agreement with the Harmony Company of Chicago, which would market a ukulele and ukulele banjo bearing Marvin’s name. On May 5, 1928, Marvin sailed for England on the Leviathan. As a publicity stunt the Harmony Company made a special gold-engraved ukulele to be presented to the Prince of Wales, with his coat-of-arms and seal embossed on it. Marvin also took along 10,000 miniature ukuleles made by Harmony for throwaways during his London stay. Johnny Marvin opened his London engagement at the Kit Kat Club on May 14; on June 16, Billboard credited [him] with ‘having brought the Prince of Wales twice in one evening to the Kit Kat Club to hear his warbling and uke playing.’

Funny Regal didn’t think of it first—a Regal Prince of Wales uke would have had such cache.

It’s uncertain if the prince’s short stay at Waikiki in 1920 had any part in his awakening interest in the ‘ukulele but he fancied the music. “The Prince, who was weary of life on board ship, took rooms for himself and his Staff at the Moana for a few days,” according to one writer, “and in his typically democratic way, he ate in the big dining room, went swimming and surfing, and mingled with the other hotel guests.” Dancing to the music of the Moana Hotel Orchestra in the Banyan Court, the prince approached the band leader to request the name of the previous number and asked that the band play it again later in the evening. The tune was “Hula Blues” and the maestro Johnny noble, its composer. Edward, who also requested the band play “Sweet Hawaiian Moonlight,” enjoyed the evening so much he returned the next night for a reprise. Noble’s biographer remarked that “no other occasion in his musical life would ever equal those two nights” in Johnny’s memory.

Sophie Tucker, another American veteran of the London Kit-Kat Club remembered performing for Edward at a private party in 1925. “During the evening I was sent for to sing for the prince,” she wrote. “I sang all the songs [he] called for. He loved playing the ukulele. He got me to teach him my song, ‘Ukulele Lady.’” The prince was a quick study. A few months later, Edward was jamming with a tribe of bushmen at a rail siding in the South African veld:

H.R.H. was having dinner before going up into town to a reception and ball, when a Hottentot and a couple of Kaffirs, with their wives and piccaninnies, squatted in the dust at the line side, and throughout dinner serenaded him with jazz music (bush pattern), ancient native melodies, and anything else they had inherited from their forefathers or picked up in the local dorps. They did all this on primitive native instruments, plus an American mouth-organ; and the result was remarkably attractive. Between courses H.R.H. hummed the airs, and the minute dinner was over produced his ukelele, opened the window, and joined in the melodies. This, I think, is a priceless picture of the Prince off duty.

At the same time the Prince of Wales was kanikapila-ing in the African bush, ground was being broken back at Waikiki for a new hostelry next to the Moana Hotel. It was to be a Mediterranean Revival Spanish castle called the Royal Hawaiian.

he Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened February 1, 1927, “reviving memories” of the old hotel of the same name. The old Royal was located, appropriately enough, on Hotel St. near ‘Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu, while the Waikiki site “was an ancient gathering place of Hawaiian royalty, a legendary watering place fed by several springs.” The opening-day festivities, presided over by Princess Kawananakoa, included a concert by the Royal Hawaiian Band, a ten-dollar-a-plate dinner and ball, and an historic pageant (“colorful and semi-barbaric”) reenacting the arrival of Kamehameha the Great on Oahu. The staff of 300 included “60 people in the kitchen, 95 waiters, 40 room boys, 20 bellboys, 10 elevator operators, five telephone operators, two doormen, two pages and eight Chinese lobby boys, dressed in “Cathayan costumes,” who mostly chop-chopped for missee’s trunks.” The hotel was equipped with “38,624 dishes, 28,284 glasses, 20,292 knives, forks and spoons, 22,573 towels, 30,988 sheets, blankets and bedspreads, 25 cages of canary birds” and one ‘ukulele shop, the Paul Summers Studios.

Located in the RHH Arcade, Summers’ shop had tapa-covered walls decorated with palm fronds and pictures of famous Hawaiian landmarks. Curtained tables festooned with paper leis and raffia-hula-skirt bunting were crowded with rows of beautiful koawood ukuleles and guitars. A small electric phonograph sat ready to play recordings of local musicians, such as Summers’ own rendition of Johnny Noble’s “Hula Blues.”

Paul Summers was a retailer first and foremost, a teacher (he offered a course of six ‘ukulele lessons for $10 dollars) and performer (he was the original guitarist for Harry Owens’ Royal Hawaiians) second, but not a uke maker. Nevertheless, instruments with the Summers label turn up regularly, including “The Waikiki” brand and “Moana” (Summers had a studio at the Moana, too— both hotels were owned by the Territorial Hotel Company). One of Summers’ known suppliers was Sam Chang who, according to his daughter Clarice Chang, would make a batch of ukuleles in the basement of his house then pedal a bike down to Waikiki to deliver them. There were clearly other makers in Hawaii supplying Summers with ukes—too many survive to have been the work of one man. But I have never seen a Summers’ ‘ukulele with the Royal Hawaiian brand; or a Royal Hawaiian ‘ukulele with a connection to the hotel, besides the name “Royal Hawaiian” which has been used for products from soup to nuts. So, if Summers didn’t make them, and the RHH didn’t sell them, who did?

raw up a list of known ukulele makers active in Honolulu in the late 1920s and 30s and it’s surprisingly short. Times were tough: the real estate bust in Florida, and the stock market crash and ensuing depression cut heavily into the tourism business in Hawai‘i. The ‘ukulele, which had been extremely popular for a decade, was eclipsed by the new medium of radio and improved electronic recording. Competition from the Mainland was intense, all but crowding out Island makers from the continental market. Sales plummeted. In 1933, Sam Kamaka estimated he was selling fifteen ukuleles a month, down from three to four hundred a month in better times. To make ends meet Kamaka ran a taxi stand from his 1814 S. King St. factory, dealt in flowers and leis, and started a bird-of-paradise nursery in Halekou.

Other luthiers to survive the Crash and make it into the 30s intact (besides the two Sams—Chang & Kamaka) were the Aloha Ukulele Manufacturing Company, Jonah Kumalae, G.P. Mossman, and C.Q. Yee Hop & Company. Aloha was incorporated in late 1917 and dissolved in 1935; most of the shareholders were of Chinese descent but for one notable exception: Ernest Ka‘ai, who owned five percent of the company. Aloha was run by Chu Gem—a businessman rather than a craftsman; the creative genius was Tai Chong Goo who worked under the pseudonym Akai. Tai’s ukuleles are among the most beautiful and well crafted instruments of the period. Often branded with the Honolulu Advertising Club trademark (TABU) and a cursive “Akai,” the Aloha/Akai ‘ukulele might have a highly flamed koa body, a fanciful, asymmetrical headstock and top-notch inlay work or be a plain, well-proportioned beauty with lovely round curves. Strictly a wholesale business in their early years, Aloha eventually opened a retail shop on the factory premises. When the company folded, Tai continued making ukuleles on his own under the name Akai Ukulele & Curio Company; he died in Honolulu in 1968 at the age of 88.

Jonah Kumalae was probably the most successful (in terms of volume) of the early Hawaiian makers. Strictly a businessman, Kumalae tendered the winning bid for the curio concession at the Hawaii Building during the entire run of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. His ukulele exhibit there won a gold medal and Kumalae wasted no time in seizing the day by securing important mainland distributors like Sherman, Clay & Co. who had stores tumbling down the West Coast from Seattle to San Diego. Back home, he advertised his gold medal ukuleles in the city directory for several years, an expensive proposition no doubt. A suspicious fire destroyed his Liliha St. factory in 1922; Kumalae claimed to have lost an

astonishing 4,000 ukuleles in the conflagration. He blamed the extent of the damage on the municipal government for failing to mount an adequate response (fires had twice before destroyed large tracts of Honolulu; it was a legitimate issue). He moved his operation to the family home at the corner of Isenberg and South King Street, were four employees worked for him, according to his son, Jonah, Jr. Kumalae went to Chicago in 1926 to try to sell an invention for a banjo uke accessory but he was apparently unsuccessful. It’s unclear if Kumalae’s ‘ukulele business ever recovered its pre-fire stature; minimal entries for the company appeared regularly in the city directory thereafter until his death in 1940.

George Paele Mossman got into the ‘ukulele business with Clarence Kinney in 1914; by 1918 they had split up. Mossman continued making ukuleles and in 1927 claimed to have perfected a uke which could be heard from half a mile away and yet still retain its clarity and tonal sweetness. He called it the Bell Tone and promptly trademarked the name with the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. Mossman ran large ads for Bell Tone ukes in the Honolulu Advertiser (they could be purchased at leading music stores and several hotels including the Royal Hawaiian and Moana); he projected annual sales of 10,000 instruments for 1928, an incredibly optimistic forecast. That same year Mossman founded Lalani Hawaiian Village at Waikiki and devoted himself to furthering deeper understanding of native Hawaiian culture including the hula and Hawaiian language; by 1933 he suspended the manufacture of ukuleles. Mossman died in 1955 at 63 years of age after completing drawings for a larger and more cosmopolitan Lalani Village on Kapiolani Blvd.

1926 and ’27 were years of frenetic pipedreams for ‘ukulele makers in Hawaii. Sales for the large Mainland manufacturers peaked in 1926 then dropped sharply in ’27—news that was slow in coming to the Islands. Everyone was thinking big. In addition to the activities of Kumalae and Mossman, Sam Kamaka applied for a trademark and a design patent for his pineapple ‘ukulele. That same year the Los Angeles Times reported on the formation of a cartel of Hawaiian ukulele makers (for which I have found no hard evidence) that may have been related to the San Francisco musical instrument distributor Jules M. Sahlein. Sahlein trademarked several brand names in 1926, including Y’KeKe (Waikiki) and Hula Lu, names that show up occasionally on Mossman ukuleles and, more frequently, on instruments of the Hawaiian Mahogany Company.

he Hawaiian Mahogany Co. (Hawaiian mahogany is a generic name for Acacia Koa, koa wood) was incorporated in late 1921 for the purpose of cutting, milling, buying and selling, and dealing in koa, ohia, hardwood and other lumber and to manufacture and deal in products of the same: furniture, flooring, curios and ukuleles. The principal owner was C.Q. Yee Hop & Co., Ltd. which owned cattle and large tracts of land on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. In their efforts to expand their beef operation, CQYH&Co established a sawmill in Kona to facilitate clearing the hardwood forests, thereby transforming the land into open range for grazing. Presto, the Hawaiian Mahogany Company is born; and nearly as quickly it dies. CQYH&Co. subsumed operation of the HMCo in the late 1920s while continuing the business of making curios and ukuleles under the name C.Q. Yee Hop & Company. CQYH&Co manufactured and sold ukuleles through 1947 after which telephone directory listings for the company’s ‘ukulele business cease.

Excerpt from the Hawaiian Mahogany Co. articles of incorporation

“Echo” was the Hawaiian Mahogany Company’s most recognizable ‘ukulele brand, an instrument with a forked, flat brass twanger glued to the underside of the soundboard near the bridge. It didn’t really create an echo. HMCo Echo ukes frequently show up with the Y’KeKe decal of Jules M. Sahlein affixed to the peghead, an indication the instruments were exported and sold on the Mainland. As early as 1929, HMCo (then doing business as C.Q. Yee Hop & Co.) began marketing a new brand of ukuleles: The Royal Hawaiian. Were they ever sold in the lobby of the Pink Palace? Who knows. CQYH&Co. is still around today. Still in the food business. They don’t make and sell ukuleles, but who knows what the future might bring. C.Q. Yee Hop & Co. just might be keeping their options open.

Thanks to all who contributed something to this essay, including Stephen Becker, Jim Tranquada, Tom Walsh, Michael Goo, Donna Ewald Huggins, Del Medina, Chuck Fayne, Arch Larizza, Ken Bailey and the Hekili Collection, Hawai‘i State Archives, Hamilton Library, Hawai‘i State Library and the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum.

Text and images © 2008 by John King. All rights reserved.

A Strum Through ‘Ukulele History

February 1st, 2008

From Madeira to Hawaii to the San Francisco Bay

by John King and Jim Tranquada

Capital On April 23, 1907—almost a year to the day following San Francisco’s great earthquake—Jack London and his wife, Charmian, sailed London’s yacht Snark through the Golden Gate bound for Hawaii on the first leg of a projected round-the-world cruise. Twenty-seven days later, overdue and feared lost, the Snark limped past throngs of well-wishers lining the wharves of Honolulu Harbor. The following day, Mrs. London took notice of a dark-skinned young man delivering the mail and recorded the moment in her journal: “My first Hawaiian on his native heath.” However, she was mistaken; he was full-blooded Portuguese. “Alack, my first Hawaiian is Portuguese,” she lamented, “and Jack is hilarious.”

Charmian and Jack London, Honolulu, 1907.
(Hawaii State Archives)

Capital Organized emigration of Portuguese to Hawaii began in 1878 with the arrival of 120 passengers from Madeira; within ten years, 11,000 Pokiki would call Hawaii home—most of them recruited as laborers for sugar plantations. When 423 men, women, and children disembarked from the British ship Ravenscrag on August 23, 1879 after a four-month voyage from Madeira, twenty-five-year-old João Fernandes staged an impromptu celebration, bursting into song while accompanying himself with a machete de braga, a stunted pinewood guitar “with scale marks [frets] all the way down to the [sound] hole and with the top left unpolished to improve its tone.”

At the time of the Ravenscrag’s arrival, the machete de braga—more often referred to as the machete—was the most popular musical instrument in Madeira, a small island group off the coast of Morocco. Described as a “viola pequena,” or little guitar, by Raphael Bluteau in 1716, the machete went largely unnoticed until the mid-nineteenth century. “The machete is peculiar to [Madeira],” visitor Robert White observed in 1851. “It is a small guitar, with four strings of catgut…used by the peasantry to accompany the voice and the dance. The music consists of a succession of simple chords, but, in the hands of an accomplished player, the machete is capable of much more pleasing harmony; and the stranger is sometimes agreeably surprised to hear the fashionable music of our ball-rooms given with considerable effect, on what appears a very insignificant instrument.”

Cândido Drummond de Vasconcellos (fl. 1841-188?) was just such an accomplished machete player. According to the Funchal newspaper O Defensor, Drummond’s performance at an 1841 concert was “listened to with the greatest attention” and received “thunderous applause, the general opinion being that it would be difficult to find a rival for Mr. Drummond.” Remarkably, the music of Drummond survives, preserved in a manuscript of machete and guitar duets dated 1846 that surfaced in Madeira in the 1990s.

“Country Musicians,” from A History of Madeira, 1821.
(Collection of John King)

Capital Ohe appeal of this other-island music was not lost on contemporary Hawaiian listeners. Scarcely two weeks after the arrival of the Ravenscrag, an article entitled “Portuguese Musicians” appeared in the Hawaiian Gazette:

“During the past week a band of Portuguese musicians, composed of Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The musicians are true performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels. We confess to having enjoyed the music ourselves and hope to hear more of it.”

However, little more was heard from the Madeirans, who under the terms of their three-year contracts shipped out to plantations on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. Most Ravenscrag passengers did not return to Honolulu until the early 1880s, when they resumed their former trades as “mechanics, cobblers, tinkers and all sorts” since few—if any—were agriculturists.

Advertisement for Madeira Wine, Pacific Commercial Advertiser, August 30, 1879. (Hawaii State Library)

Capital Among the first to settle in Honolulu were cabinetmakers Augusto Dias (1842-1915), Manuel Nunes (1843-1922), and Jose do Espirito Santo (1850-1905). By 1886, all three had opened shops making furniture and stringed instruments, including guitars, five-string rajãoes, and machetes—the latter two referred to as taro-patch fiddles. Within three years Dias, Nunes, and Espirito Santo would create a hybrid instrument that combined the small size and figure-eight body shape of the machete with the “my-dog-has-fleas” tuning (sans fifth string) of the rajão. It was called the ‘ukulele.

Advertisements for Dias and Nunes “machets,” O Luso Hawaiiano, August 15, 1885. (Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii)

Capital Crafted from the indigenous Hawaiian wood Acacia koa, the ‘ukulele made its debut in Island society during a party aboard the British yacht Nyanza at Honolulu in 1889, introduced by a trio of young women that included Princess Victoria Kaiulani. Due in part to royal patronage (Kaiulani’s uncle, King Kalakaua, was also a player) and the association of koa wood with aloha aina or love of the land, the ‘ukulele quickly assumed a Hawaiian character and an unprecedented popularity with the native population.

The identities of the first ‘ukulele players are mostly unrecorded, submerged within anonymous groups like “the Hawaiian Quintette Club” and “the famous Taro-Patch Quartette.” Nevertheless, the names of William Aeko (fl. 1893-1915), Mekia Kealakai (1867-1944), and Ernest Kaai (1881-1962) have surfaced as early proponents of Hawaiian music and the ‘ukulele. They were performers (Kealakai and Kaai were also teachers) with lengthy careers who played important roles in the spread of popular Hawaiian culture.

Ernest Kaai, from The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It, Revised Edition,1910, Wall, Nichols, Co., Honolulu.
(Collection of John King)

Capital Writer Charles Warren Stoddard was especially taken with the music he heard everywhere in Honolulu. “Hawaiians are passionately fond of music,” he wrote, whether it was “the clang of gourds…beaten by savage palms,” a passing “troop of troubadours strumming a staccato measure,” or “Professor Berger and his clever native lads”—Henry Berger (1844-1929) and the Royal Hawaiian Band. Berger and his musicians sailed to San Francisco in 1883 to perform at the Triennial Conclave of the Knights Templar, an event that would also include the first Mainland performance of Liliuokalani’s beloved “Aloha Oe.” After a week of grueling, nonstop performances that included light classics, marches, ballroom dance tunes, and an a capella vocal rendition of “Hawaii Ponoi,” the Royal Hawaiian Band were declared “prime favorites with the populace” by the San Francisco Chronicle. During his forty-year tenure, Berger continually expanded the RHB from its martial roots to include full orchestral strings, vocalists, and a glee club that sang Hawaiian songs while accompanying themselves on guitars, banjos, and ‘ukuleles. In the three decades following the Triennial Conclave, the RHB blazed a trail for all Hawaiian musicians—from San Francisco, throughout the West Coast, and ultimately across the continent.

The earliest known commercial mainland performance of Hawaiian music with the ‘ukulele was at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Kilauea Cyclorama featured a re-creation of the interior of Kilauea Crater, complete with a quartet of vocalists that included William Aeko. Dubbed the Volcano Singers, they accompanied themselves with Spanish guitars, five-string taropatch, and ‘ukulele. Along with the musicians, the entire exhibition was shipped west to San Francisco for display at the California Mid-Winter Fair in 1894.

Hawaiian musicians often supplemented their appearances at world’s fairs with performances on the vaudeville stage. After leaving the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, Mekia Kealakai’s troupe made its way west from Buffalo, performing on the Keith Vaudeville circuit, a tour that ended with engagements in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Hawaiian performers could also be heard in such cities as New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Atlantic City. A Hawaiian quintet even entertained President Taft and his guest, Prince Tsai Tsao of China, during a state dinner at the White House in 1910.

Anthony Zablan, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, 1901. (Hawaii State Archives)

Capital Onterest in the ‘ukulele grew with the production of Bird of Paradise in 1911. A stage drama set in Hawaii, Bird was the work of Bay Area playwright Richard Walton Tully and Los Angeles impresario Oliver Morosco; its most notable feature was a continuous undercurrent of Hawaiian music provided by a quintet of native musicians that included Aeko. The play opened on Broadway in 1912 and became a sensation, touring North America, Europe, and Australia. “It wasn’t until Tully’s opera, ‘The Bird of Paradise’ was produced,” Edison Phonograph Monthly reported, “that musicians gave any serious thought to the [‘ukulele] and its music.” But it was an event in San Francisco in 1915—one that capitalized on the popularity of Bird of Paradise and the success of Hawaiian music pioneers like Aeko, Kealakai, and Kaai—that would incite a worldwide craze for the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music.

The Hawaii Exposition Commission began the task of organizing an Hawaiian exhibition for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1911, four years before the proposed start of the event. The commissioners decided on a French Renaissance building designed by C.W. Dickey, a Hawaii-born architect from Oakland. The main hall accommodated an aquarium filled with tropical fish that covered three walls; exploding from the fourth wall was a sculptural group by Gordon Usborne entitled “Surf Riders.” In the center of the hall “an Hawaiian quintette—amid palms and tree ferns—sang morning and afternoon those weird, unworldly melodies that seem to rise and fall on the long swells of the Pacific and take their tempo from them.”

Henry Kailimai’s Hawaiian Quintet, Hawaii Building, Panama-Pacific International Exposition. (Hawaii State Archives)

Capital The quintet (and the fish) were a hit, one of the most popular exhibitions at the P.P.I.E. “People were about ready for a new sensation in popular music,” exposition historian Frank Morton Todd wrote, “and the sweet voices of the Hawaiians you heard at the Hawaiian Building…were enough to start another musical vogue.” San Francisco-based Sherman, Clay & Co. took notice, calling themselves “the largest ‘ukulele dealers in the world” and advertising Hawaii-made ‘ukuleles and free lessons beginning in May 1915. Visitors to the P.P.I.E. also could purchase ‘ukuleles, taropatches, and other koa wood curios from the award-winning concession of Jonah Kumalae. On Thanksgiving Day, the San Francisco Chronicle threw a party for the “inmates of the Children’s Hospital and the Relief Home,” with music by Hawaiian musicians from the Keech Studios, owned by Hawaii-born brothers Alvin and Kelvin Keech. When industrialist Henry Ford visited, he was so enthralled by the Hawaiian music he hired the house quintet to come to Detroit when the P.P.I.E. ended in December 1915 to play for Ford Motor Company events throughout the Midwest. The imp was out of the bottle…

Jonah Kumalae. (Hawaii State Archives)

Capital That month, Jack and Charmian London returned to Hawaii aboard the steamer Great Northern—a voyage that featured Hawaiian entertainment supplied by the Keech Studios. On his first trip to Hawaii in 1907, Jack London likened the ‘ukulele to “a young guitar”; thereafter, he mentioned the instrument frequently in his Hawaiian stories and even presaged the impending mainland mania for the ‘ukulele in his novel The Valley of the Moon. In Honolulu, on the last day of his visit, London was feted at a farewell luau with a mele (song) telling of his pilgrimage around the Big Island. “We had assembled our friends for the christening of the Jack London Hula,” Charmian later wrote, “chanted stanza by stanza, each repeated by Ernest Kaai and his perfect Hawaiian singers with their instruments. Each long stanza, carrying an incident of the progress around Hawaii, closed with two lines:

Hainaia mai ana ka puana,
No Keaka Lakana neia inoa.

“This song is then echoed,
’Tis in honor of Jack London.”

* * *

This article was commissioned by Stephen Becker, curator of the exhibit “Evolution of the ‘Ukulele: The Story of Hawaii’s Jumping Flea” which ran from August 2 to October 21, 2007 at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco, CA. It was originally published on the MOCFA website.

© 2007 by John King and Jim Tranqauda.
All images collected, digitized and © 2007 by John King.

On plastic

March 6th, 2007

A popular-priced, high quality professional instrument

he act of substituting experimental materials for traditional ones in the process of string instrument building is as old as the craft itself. The gradual discovery and implementation of new and better tonewoods, appropriate uses of slab and bias-cut lumber, improvements in design, and gains in the sciences of physics and acoustics have all contributed to the constantly evolving creative act of luthiery. Interestingly, the motives for change are as varied as the changes themselves: popularity, availability of raw materials, new musical styles, old musical styles, demands of recording and broadcasting—or performing plugged-in or unplugged—improved sound and playability, etc. However, the one factor overarching all these is economics and the mantra that has driven mass production is to make things cheaper, faster.

Not surprisingly, cheaper and faster are rarely, if ever, better or even the same as traditional methods and materials. A central theme in marketing mass produced instruments, stringed or otherwise, is the creation of a myth—great sound and playabilty at a fraction of the cost—at odds with the convential wisdom that you get what you pay for. In 1946, plastic harmonica developer Finn H. Magnus claimed his polystyrene reeds were “just as resilient as brass” and produced “mellower tones” although the performer had to “blow a little harder for his music.” Harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler disagreed. “As a musician I couldn’t possibly use it,” Adler declared. “It does not have the necessary range of color and musical expression. The manufacture of the harmonica must be as painstaking as making lenses.” But at a tenth the cost of a Hohner, with six shiny colors to choose from and “making a noise likely to soothe anybody who likes the harmonica—except Larry Adler and his peers…” Well, you get the picture. Magnus reduced the number of parts to five and the assembly to one operation for his plastic mouth organ, compared to no fewer than eighty parts and one-hundred fifty operations for a simple Hohner Marine Band harmonica. His ingenuity paid off; it made him a millionaire.

The development in the first half of the 20th century of synthetic materials — plastics — which could be milled, molded, or drawn into virtually any shape, or designed for nearly any use, had a profound effect on the manufacture of objects in general and musical instruments in particular. Introduced into peripheral items such as tuning peg buttons and bindings, materials like pyralin, Bakelite and nylon were quickly expanded into use as integral vibration-transmitting parts like reeds, strings, and nuts and saddles, replacing cane, gut, wood, bone and ivory. While much of the development of plastics occured in the 1930s—most significantly, polystyrene and nylon—widespread commercial exploitaton did not take take place until after the Second World War.

In our own era change has been rapid and is nowhere more representative than in the ukulele family of instruments. Initially introduced into the Hawaiian Islands in the late 19th century, the forerunners to the ukulele (the machete and rajão) were constructed of woods native to the island of Madeira. Within twenty years of its importation the newly christened ukulele began to be made of Hawaiian hardwoods, most notably koa. Not only the backs and sides but the tops—traditionaly made of soft woods like spruce and pine—were made from the indigenous Hawaiian wood, a situation driven perhaps more by availabilty and cost rather than tonal considerations. The zenith of ukulele making in Hawaii was arguably reached by 1905, the year that Jose do Espirito Santo died. With the uke boom of the teens and twenties the mode of production moved from individuals hand-crafting instruments to factory operations both in Hawaii and on the mainland. As an enormously popular instrument, the uke was made incarnate in larger and larger forms from such seemingly disparate materials as wood, coconut shell, steel, tin, composition and plastic. With rare exception, the trend towards mass production lead to a cheapening of the instrument throughout the twentieth-century.

Consider the case of Harry E. Hall of Chicago, Illinois. When Hall filed a patent application in December 1925 for a mass-produced “sheet metal finger plate” for ukuleles, it was a milestone in the odyssey to low-cost and quick production. While Hall’s innovation eventually hit store shelves as a cheap brand called “Tru-Fret,” it had been his intention that the time and money saved by mass producing fingerboards would be lavished on better woods for the rest of the instrument: “Instruments of better tone quality than heretofore can be produced at a given price, not necessarily as a direct result of the tone qualities of the finger plate itself, as by reason of the great saving in price in the construction of the fingerboard, which makes it possible to put a better sound box in the instrument without increasing the total cost.” In practice the concept worked a little differently; inexpensive, mass produced fingerboards were attached to ukulele bodies made of inferior materials so as to further reduce costs and maximize profits. For instance, in the 1950s, ads for the Chicago manufacturer Harmony boasted that “Harmony creativeness and Harmony’s craftsmen teamed to produce this ingenious “Accurately Molded” polystyrene plastic fingerboard for moderately priced wood ukuleles. Offers fretting that is perfection itself. Mechanically exact – provides a freedom of technique hitherto unknown in low priced ukes.” Unfortunately the legacy left us by Harry E. Hall, at least with regard to ukulele construction, and notwithstanding his stated intentions, is this: vintage instruments constructed with molded, screw on fingerboards are the epitome of cheapness.

Ukuleles Go Plastic

ut what about the all-plastic ukuleles first manufactured in the 1950s? There were many brands, and several patents, all for injection-molded polystyrene instruments of varying quality. The Strad of plastic ukes was Mario Maccaferri’s Islander, made by Maccaferri’s Mastro Plastics Corp. in the Cremona of the West: Bronx, New York. Highly collectible today, the original plastic Maccaferri ukuleles were made of Dow Styron polystyrene and had Du Pont nylon strings supplied by the National Musical String Co. of New Brunswick, New Jersey. In March, 1950, according to a report in Newsweek Maccaferri was turning out 2,500 ukuleles a day—almost one every thirty seconds—with a backlog of 100,000 orders on hand. Plans for the rest of 1950 included projected sales of half-a-million ukuleles.

That same month an article in the Wall Street Journal credited a TV personality—and plastic—with popularizing the ukulele anew:

Arthur Godfrey, Styron Spark Ukulele Comeback

The ukulele business is coming back with a loud twang, thanks to Arthur Godfrey and Dow Chemical’s plastic, Styron. The ukulele was popular shortly after World War I when Hawaiian music first came in. After that it pretty well passed out of the picture.

The boom got under way last Summer, when Mr. Godfrey appeared on television with a uke. Seeing it apparently started up public demand again. The difficulty was to get an instrument cheap enough for popular sale. Mario Maccaferri, head of Mastro Plastics, who got his start making plastic reeds for wind instruments, worked with Dow engineers to design the all-plastic uke. The ukes have nylon strings and can be played under water if any one wants to try it.

Maccaferri had originally planned to invest $10,000 and turn out a five-dollar toy, but reconsidered. “I know how to make the best,” he reasoned. “Why shouldn’t I use all my experience and make a real ukulele?” Why, indeed. When he finally had a product he was satisfied with, Maccaferri had gambled $75,000 on the success of the Islander but “had a much better instrument” than he expected. The major expense was for the four large molding presses that turned out the eight major parts of the ukulele: body, neck, and head (in one molded unit); the soundboard; the fingerboard, with molded-in frets; the bridge, the soundboard ring; the head cover; the inside sound bar; and the nut. Maccaferri’s five U.S. patents covered everything separately from the nut, soundboard, and bridge to the fingerboard and the method of making it. Compared to the simple patents of George Finder and David Rosenheim, Maccaferri’s ukulele patents look like rocket science, and in a way they really are blueprints for making space-age ukes.

According to one early report, the Islander came “in all colors, and one model is flourescent.” The official line was “simulated rosewood, with the head cover and soundboard in ivory.” Over the years, countless variants were made (if there is an official tally of the different colors I have not seen it). Like Magnus and his plastic harmonica before him, Maccaferri reduced the number of parts needed to assemble an ukulele from about twenty-one for a wooden instrument, to eight for the Islander—excluding the strings and tuning pegs.

An article in Modern Plastics outlined the difficulties Maccaferri overcame with his design:

One of the largest problems encountered during the pre-production days of the Islander was the selection of a maerial formulation that would have all the properties and characteristics necessary for the particular application. Four months were spent on the choice of a material—one that would withstand the tension of the strings, one that would not distort or shrink during the life of the instrument, and one that would produce the correct pitch, resonance, and tonal quality. The final polystyrene formulation chosen combined the above requirements with resistance to the effects of dryness, moisture, heat, or cold.

Another production problem that had to be solved was the proper selection of an adhesive. The wrong adhesive would result in either shrinkage of the polystyrene or a marked deadening of sound in the completed instrument. According to the manufacturer, the selected adhesive further strengthens the polystyrene parts against the effects of dryness, moisture, heat, or cold.

For a finishing touch, Islanders were surface treated and waxed and packaged in re-usable polyethylene bags secured at the top with rubber bands! They retailed for $5.95 (later reduced to $3.95), and cost about $1.50 to make. Maccaferri said he made 25 cents on each instrument and the rest went to middlemen. The Islander line eventually featured several other products including an extended fingerboard model, a baritone ukulele, a child’s-sized Ukette, and a patented chording device called the Visual Chordmaster. Mastro Plastics Corp. continued making ukuleles well into the 1960s.

Applied music

n 1952, an American educator addressed the shortage of string players in schools by introducing experimental pre-string training classes for fourth-graders using ukuleles. William Mihalyi was inspired by a talk he heard at the first annual conference of ASTA (American String Teachers Association) in 1951 extolling the use of ukuleles to teach both vocal and instrumental music at the same time. Mihalyi wrote:

Upon my return home, I immediately contacted my supervisor, who agreed to try ukuleles for a pre-string training program. After considerable investigation we chose plastic ukuleles with nylon strings as the instrument to use in this experiment. The tone was fine, the construction showed attention to detail, and the possibility of “long life” seemed to be present.

The instrument Mihalyi chose was the Islander Ukette. And it opened his eyes. “Without a doubt there are those who will turn up their noses at the thought of using ukuleles in schools. It is not the accepted thing! I, myself, felt that way at one time. I had been taught to look down on certain instruments as being of a lower form than others. Such thoughts are now disappearing from my mind.” It’s not clear if the program ever progressed beyond the experimental stage (unlike the Canadian program introduced by Chalmers Doane), but results were apparently beyond expectations. Students interested in the violin made the change from ukette to fiddle easily. And Mihalyi noted another possible benefit from including the ukulele in a larger music curriculum: “Even in later life playing the ukulele could be a source of enjoyment in the home.” Was he predicting the Third Wave?

References from Modern Plastics, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Music Educators Journal, and Fortune were used in this article.

Text and images © 2007 by John King

Die Verwandlung

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

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.

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

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

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