Ukulele: Hawaii’s Special Musical Tradition

You hear the first few strums and you know exactly what it is. It's the joyful sound of the Hawaiian ukulele! Your spirits lift and you are immediately delighted. Popular in the 1920s, the uke's sound had faded until recently, but it's enjoying a resurgence in Hawaiian culture and around the world.

The Hawaiian word for‘jumping flea,’ukulele lives up to its description. This humble but lively instrument with only four strings has an incredible range from its unsophisticated traditional rhythm melodies to more complex and energetic lead instrument stylings. Though playing it seems to be very simple and is easily learned by beginners, it's hard to play really well. But whatever the skill level of the performer, it's just plain fun.

Ukuleles usually come in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. With its new popularity, the ukulele itself is evolving – there are now six-, seven-, eight-, and nine-string instruments being made. The best ukes are made with koa wood with rosewood fingerboards, but other woods can be used, including mahogany, mango, cedar, maple, spruce and nato. Some have fancy abalone trim.

Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (Bruddah Iz) reintroduced the ukulele's pure resonance to today's music in his medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World. This song is even more popular today than when it was released in 1993.

Several artists have elevated the ukulele's sound to new heights and brought it to wider audiences. Contemporary Hawaiian performers such as Jake Shimabukuro and Ryan Imamura, along with Raiatea Helm and Taimane Gardner have transcended the original ukulele songs and adapted the music to other styles. From rock ‘n roll to reggae, back to traditional Hawaiian folk songs to concert music, the versatile ukulele can do it all.

Jake Shimabukuro, Raiatea Helm and Taimane Gardner

Ukulele virtuoso and teacher Roy Sakuma and his wife have established the Ukulele Festival Hawaii, which happens each year in July, to honor our islands' ultimate instrument. Many of the world's finest players come to share their art with islanders and visitors alike.

Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, described the ukulele best: she said that the word ukulele came from the Hawaiian words uku (gift) and lele (to come) --the gift that came here. This tiny instrument that was developed by Portuguese immigrant craftsmen in the late 1800s has been a rich part of Hawaii's musical heritage and will continue to have the premier place in our hearts as the symbol of all things Hawaiian.