The origin of the ukulele is not known with any certainty, however Europe seems to be the area where the instrument evolved. The early version of the ukulele eventually immigrated to Portugal, where it was called the braghuina. The instrument was especially popular on the Portuguese island of Madeira; where it was often played at gatherings such as fiestas,weddings, and dances.
During the colonial period the Portuguese were considered the world’s master sailors, and many took their braghuinas to sea in order to relieve the monotony of long voyages. When they went ashore they brought their braghuinas and introduced the instruments to native populations, which, in many cases, became enamored of its sprightly sound. This happened in Brazil, where the Brazilians gave the instrument their own name. They called the ukulele the cavaco.
Although the Portuguese empire declined, the ukulele continued to be popular in its former colonies; and when some Portuguese left their country to find better economic opportunities, they brought their instruments. Thus did the Portuguese braghuina arrive on the shores of Hawaii, where many Portuguese contracted to work on the sugar plantations. In 1879 over four hundred Portuguese arrived at the Hawaiian Islands. The Hawaiians, who were impressed by the dexterity of the finger movements, named the Portuguese braghuina the ukulele, which means “jumping flea”.
The Ukulele’s Journey to Honolulu became complete when the Portuguese sugar plantation workers fulfilled their contracts, some moved to other areas such as the city of Honolulu, where some became woodworkers and opened shops where they made furniture and repaired musical instruments, including the braghuina. As these craftsmen became known the braghuina began to achieve notice and eventually the court of King Kalakaua adopted it as one of the royal instruments. It then began to be more widely called the ukulele, its new Hawaiian name. King Kalakaua, an accomplished musician, began to study and play the instrument, himself.
The making of ukuleles by hand was very difficult and time-consuming. Eventually machines and forms were developed to cut and shape the wood used to form the instrument. Koa wood, which comes from a tree that grows in the Hawaiian high lands, was selected because of its attractive grain, its light weight, and its resonant sound. Steel strings were replaced by gut strings by one of the leading innovators, Manuel Nunes, and a new tuning pattern was developed making chord formations easier.
Ukuleles are most often made of wood. In contemporary times some have been made of plastic or other non-wooden materials. Less expensive ukes are made from laminated wood. Sometimes the soundboard is made from wood that has superior acoustics, such as spruce. Higher priced ukuleles are made of hardwoods, such as mahogany. Some of the highest priced ukuleles are made from Hawaiian koa wood.
The typical ukulele has the same shape as a guitar, but it is smaller. There are three standard-tuned ukuleles: the soprano, the concert, and the tenor. The baritone ukulele is the largest ukulele, but it is tuned like the four higher strings of a guitar. The strings of ukuleles used to be made of gut. Now they are made from synthetic materials, such as nylon. Whatever size ukulele you choose to play, a lot of fun is guaranteed.