1 Paraphrased from a statement given orally and conrmed by LeClair in his chapter ‘e “Big
Train” and Historical Fiction: Matthiesen, Vollman, Sayles, McCarthy’ (LeClair 2014).
The History of the
‘Ukulele ‘Is Today’
‘e past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Faulkner’s oft-quoted maxim1
is well suited to the history of the ‘ukulele, as this chapter is intended
to illustrate. In a recent thesis defence, one of my students was asked
why she was so intent in detailing historical facts while obviously aiming
at amarketing study. She replied, ‘e past makes the present as it is’.
How history is seen as a process that includes present and future is crucial
to the understanding of cultural studies. Faulkner’s enthusiasm for and
approach to history is worth being understood by musicologists who deal
mainly with real-time subject matters, not only musically but also the
underlying cultural processes (Fargnoli and Golay 2009). e ‘ukulele is
a symbolic item in the perception of Hawai‘i as a ‘culture’. e history
of this popular instrument, however, has seen many twists and turns on
its way to becoming an iconic musical instrument for various cultural
movements. In tracing the details, including specic approaches to what
is called ‘music-ing’, this chapter highlights the importance of historical
depth in ethnomusicological research. Historical depth in such research
has also been encouraged by Stephen Wild, to whom I dedicate this
chapter. e recent availability of electronic information tools and wealth
of details does not necessarily make the task any easier as subject matters
are not neatly sorted according to places and times.
Point of departure
e ‘ukulele is said to derive from a small Madeiran lute that was
imported by Portuguese musicians to Hawai‘i and there transformed
into a very popular string instrument.2 My more detailed investigations
of the ‘ukulele story lead to the insight that the ‘ukulele is probably an
invention by ambitious carpenters in Hawai‘i. e immediate precursor,
that is, the model for the ‘invention’ of the ‘ukulele is not the smaller,
more elaborate and rened braguinha, but the rather simple rajão. is
is contrary to the rather simplistic illusion of ‘ukulele fans and musicians
practising in California that the ‘ukulele’s history dates to the beginning of
Portuguese civilisation, eventually reaching the United States in the early
twentieth century on the occasion of San Francisco’s World Exhibition
of1915. My research is an elaboration of the history moving through
Crucial to my approach to development of the historical ow is the analysis
of a variety of texts written at dierent places and times. is progression
must be developed in comparison and blended with evidence from sources
on organological features such as musical function, repertoire, tuning, and
detailed construction, as well as with facts emerging from biographical
data of instrument makers and musicians. e long route from being
ahigh-register melody lute in a Madeiran ensemble to the well-marketed
and often colourful ‘ukulele used in today’s varying contexts can be partly
traced back through stories that are written, told, symbolically depicted,
and musically illustrated. My sources are newspaper articles, personal
letters, introductions to ‘ukulele method books and ‘ukulele sheet music,
published writings and manuscripts of ‘ukulele musicians, recorded
interviews, and the standard academic literature analysing some of these
texts. e places involved in the sources are as interesting as the story itself.
ey include Apia, Bremen, Chicago, Funchal, Honolulu, Los Angeles,
2 is chapter is based on long-term research and an earlier paper (Jähnichen 2009) that is
here greatly restructured and extended in its discussion, and includes corrected data and additional
ndings. Further research was undertaken in 2015 after the production of handmade Madeiran lutes
had successfully been resumed.
Paderborn, San Francisco, San José, Vienna, and the World Wide Web.
at is to say, this chapter traces the ‘ukulele’s development as a musical
instrument and cultural history through some lesser-known sources,
which feature a variety of individual contributions to the knowledge and
As an instrument that has travelled around the world and carries
various meanings important to those who produce it, who play it, and
who listen to it, the ‘ukulele is an excellent example of early global
knowledge transmission that started in the Atlantic region, then restarted
Cultural migration to Hawai‘i
Hawai‘i (or the Sandwich Islands, as earlier named by James Cook) must
have been a place for immigration by the time that plantation systems
were introduced, requiring more labourers than available, the idea of
plantations being to produce a volume of products beyond local market
demands. As a result of the infrastructure boom, not only plantations were
soon in need of more hands as many local sectors of the industry as awhole
were lacking manpower to accommodate growing needs. elabour gaps,
once all political barriers were removed,3 could be lled by migrants
who brought along their culture and their understanding of economy.
istook place not later than in the middle of the nineteenthcentury.
Before that time, contacts with other Pacic Islanders, Chinese, Russian,
Spaniards, French, German, Norwegian, or British people who passed
by or worked temporarily on the islands might have had some musical
inuence. However, these contacts could not lead to a dominating or
long-lasting impact on the cultural environment as might be observed
in the era of agricultural industrialisation. ough reaching Hawai‘i may
indicate high mobility, trac between places on the islands or between
the islands themselves was technically limited. Single groups of migrants
were, therefore, quite isolated and did not travel far from the place they
lived. A broadly adopted policy of plantation systems enabled a steady
inux of culturally diverse people who were able to shape new cultural
conditions through changed mobility patterns and other adaptations.
3 For example, the abolishment of earlier belief systems (kapu) and the Mehele reformation of land
ownership that enabled the accumulation of land by a few landlords.
Vause described the conditions for e Hawaiian Home Commission Act
1920, in her MA thesis (Vause 1962: 106). Kent, drawing on Vause,
the entire system operated along the racist line established by plantation
interests in the mid-nineteenth century, when a cultural division of labor
had been imposed upon sugar production to facilitate exploitation of
(and to divide) the proletariat … Chinese were found in small businesses,
Japanese in small businesses, on small farms, and on plantations,
Portuguese were plantation foremen and skilled crafts people, Filipinos
were plantation laborers, and Hawaiians were low-level government
workers, stevedores, and construction workers. (Kent 1993: 83)
e alignment of ethnic origins with professional and social status, when
reected in local narratives over a long period of time, can be considered
as a benecial developmental stage. As such, it might have been one of
the factors stimulating cultural redenitions, marketable inventions, and
a spirit of experimenting with socialisation patterns that possibly had
been taboo in the past (Haley 2014: 34–52).
e arrival of the Portuguese, the largest group of which was from
Madeira, had only in its late stage a strong cultural impact on the islands.
With general social restratication and ethnic stereotyping, and with
the need for new patterns of socialisation and cultural negotiations,
Madeiran Portuguese tried to make use of their craftwork skills in a new
environment (Almeida 1992). What contributed to their reputation might
have been the direct and well-organised recommendation by the former
head physician of Queen’s Hospital in Honolulu, Wilhelm Hillebrand.
His support paved their way into a higher stratum of lower-paid jobs,
giving them the opportunity to accumulate a small business capital. eir
impact was strong due to the fact that they immigrated mainly as whole
families and in large groups that continued and extended their mostly
Catholic religious activities, which signicantly included performing
arts. e Portuguese, also called Pokiki, were obviously not considered
haole—outsiders/strangers4—the inclusiveness perhaps contributing to
their successful integration and survival.
4 Look up these communal knowledge platforms: HawaiiHistory.org (2015) and Donch.com
How the invention of the ‘ukulele is made possible by the combination
ofthese preconditions, the stage of cultural immigration, the availability
of manpower, the need for changes in social life, and the accidental
presence of creative individuals, is described in the next section.
e signicance of Hillebrand in the story of the ‘ukulele cannot be
overstated, and the basis for his role is deserving of elaboration. e link
arises through Hillebrand’s connections with rich friends on Hawai‘i who
trusted his experience for the choice of plantation labourers (Meier 2005).
His ongoing inuence and importance is signied by the continuing
existence of the Hillebrand Society some 100 years later, as evidenced in
the letter shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Letter by Charles Judd (written in Apia on 28 January 1966)
to John Stephenson, encouraging him to take over the Hillebrand
Society in Honolulu
e medical doctor Wilhelm Hillebrand, from Paderborn, Germany,
was infected with tuberculosis. Financially secure, he set out to nd
aclimate that would nurture his precarious health. ough he tried the
climates of Australia and the Philippines, his medical practice failed and
his health continued to decline. In December 1850, Hillebrand arrived
in Honolulu. Apparently, there he found a climate that was good to him,
and he stayed in Hawai‘i until 1871. In that time he became a friend of
Queen Emma, the wife of King Kamehameha IV (Kuykendall 1967).
Both the Queen and Hillebrand were enthusiastic amateur botanists, and
they brought to Hawai‘i a wide variety of plants from the Asian mainland,
including the plumeria (frangipani) used in weaving leis, the traditional
oral wreaths Hawaiians wear and present to visitors.
Prior to Hillebrand’s arrival, by 1848, thousands of Hawaiians had died
of inuenza that was brought in by earlier visitors. Two years later, the
island of Oahu lost half its population to smallpox as a result of increasing
mobility; faster ships making it possible for the smallpox virus to survive
the trip from San Francisco to Honolulu. Kamehameha and Emma raised
funds for a hospital and Hillebrand became its rst director and presiding
doctor. How he was chosen by the board of trustees is symbolic of changes
in Hawaiian society (Kludas and Bischo 2003; Greer 1969; Whiteld
Potter, Kasdon, and Rayson 2003: 106).
Hillebrand returned home in 1871, but shortly afterwards went to
Madeira Island, which is known for its mild climate, located as it
is about 1,000 kilometres from Lisbon, o the west coast of Africa in
the Atlantic Ocean. ere he published Flora of the Hawaiian Islands,
one of the world’snest early publications on Hawaiian botany (Rock
2002). Hillebrand witnessed Madeira’s bad agricultural conditions caused
by a number of plant diseases, among them oidium (powdery mildew)
and phylloxera (which, incidentally, also nearly ruined the French wine
industry). He already knew the need for sugar workers in Hawai‘i and
came to know that Madeira was the rst place where sugar plantations
had been established (in 1425). But the Madeiran workforce, including
experienced craftsmen, was no longer required due to natural disasters,
and the new circumstances for sugar production on Hawai‘i provided
an opportunity for Hillebrand to intervene (Haley 2014). rough his
friends in Hawai‘i he arranged for the barque Priscilla to carry the rst
contingent of 120 Madeiran workers to Hawai‘i in September 1878
(Kopitsch and Tilgner 1998). Although there were traditional Madeiran
musical instruments on board the Priscilla, apparently none of the
passengers could play them. e next year Hillebrand hired the barque
Ravenscrag that brought woodworkers Manuel Nuñes, Augusto Dias, and
Jose da Espirito Santo5 and 350 other Madeirans to Hawai‘i (King2007a).
Musicians were on board, namely João Luiz Correa6 and the 10-year-old
João Fernandes, who arrived with his father. João Gomes da Silva was
a passenger with a braguinha, but he could not play it. He loaned it to
Fernandes who played as he disembarked the Ravenscrag. Nuñes and his
cohorts noticed the amusement of the Hawaiians at Fernandes’s energetic
performance. Fernandes later played braguinha for Hawaiian royalty and
at a three-day luau in Waimanalo. However, it is not recorded whether he
played braguinha repertoire or newly adapted songs.
Documents of shipping companies (Hawaiian State Archive Digital
Collection 2015; Meyer 1971) list detailed data on immigrants.
Manuel Nuñes was not in the rst group; he arrived with the other two
cabinetmakers in 1879, among the passengers on the Ravenscrag in 1879
Figure 2. Documents of the Hawaiian State Digital Archive on
Portuguese Migrants show the arrival of the three cabinetmakers
5 ‘Jose da Espirito Santo’ is the spelling that most often appears in his immigration papers. Only
later did Portuguese immigrants quietly correct it to ‘José do Espirito Santo’. It is unclear which
spelling was preferred by the man himself. In this chapter, the rst form is used as it is most frequent.
6 In the Hawaiian State Digital Archives (2015), he is named ‘Conca, João Luiz; 25 years old’.
‘Conca’ might be a misspelling of ‘Correa’ since both names can look quite similar in handwriting.
is information can be summarised as:
no. name status age
112 unmarried 40
170 with family 28
193 Augusto Dias with family 37
Nuñes was the only one of these three cabinetmakers who travelled alone,
perhaps the reason that he could initiate activities that only later included
his two friends, as some advertisements show (Figure 3).
Figure 3. Advertisements for Nuñes and Dias, from O Luso Hawaiiano
(15 August 1885)
How then did the coincidence of Hillebrand’s actions and the arrival
ofexperienced craftsmen lead to the creation of a ‘‘ukulele’?
Derivations and variations of the
Nuñes may have heard of the inability of the Hawaiians to play Madeiran
lutes from those few who had arrived even earlier (i.e. before the two
barques) and who were still producing ensemble music of their homeland
for dance and religious songs during the many Catholic festas (Canticos
evangelicos 1902). It is known that around 1,200 Portuguese lived on
Hawai‘i in 1879, approximately 900 of them from Madeira and Porto
Santo. By 1912 a further 8,073 Madeirans reached Hawai‘i: 2,828 men,
1,931 women, and 3,314 children (Hawaiian State Digital Archive 2015).
e Hawaiian slack-key guitar was introduced at nearly the same time,
nolater than 1889.7 It can be safely assumed that Hawaiian society would
not have been surprised by the appearance of any type of lute.
7 For detailed information, see Ruymar (1996).
Manuel Nuñes’s older brother, Octavianno João Nuñes (M. Morais 2003:
101–4), was a viola and rabeca maker of Madeira who specialised in rajãos.
From watching his older brother at work, Manuel Nuñes knew something
of how to make simple instruments. However, Nuñes realised through
observation that average Hawaiians may need an easy-to-play instrument
to accompany their short, structured songs and, furthermore, that they
had an open mind for embracing imports, not only plants and animals.
By 1885, all three carpenters started their business with the manufacture
of small guitars. But which one was the model on which they based their
is question seems to be crucial to the understanding of the innovative
process. In most of the available literature, including websites and
compilations of useful cultural knowledge on Hawai‘i,8 statements about
the ‘ukulele are extracted from or conrm the following:
A small guitar-like instrument. It is derived from the virtually identical
machete da braҫa brought to the Hawaiian Islands by immigrants from
Madeira. ere is no string instrument native to Hawaii other than
the ‘ūkēkē, a mouth bow. ree Portuguese instrument makers arrived
in 1870: Manuel Nuñes, who opened the rst shop in 1880, and his
associates Augusto Dias and José do Espirito Santo, who opened their
own shops in 1884 and 1888 respectively. e instrument rose swiftly
topopularity among the native population: in 1886 ukuleles were used to
accompany hula dancers at King Kalakaua’s jubilee celebration, and the
Hawaiian Annual of the same year reported that ‘of late they have taken
to the banjo and that hideous small Portuguese instrument now called the
“taro-patch ddle” ’. e ‘taro-patch ddle’ is a large ukulele which appears
to be derived from the machete da rajão. (Odell and Stillman2005)
e above text included in the online version of the New Grove
Dictionary of Music and Musicians summarises standard knowledge on
the introduction of the ‘ukulele to the Hawaiian Islands. I suggest the
following corrections according to my insights. e main points changed
are the types of instruments involved and the sequence of events.
8 See HawaiiHistory.org (2015) and Museum of Making Music (2015).
e ‘ukulele is a small lute invented on the Hawaiian Islands (then the
Sandwich Islands) deriving from a reductive reconstruction of a Madeiran
rajão. ree Madeiran cabinetmakers arrived there in 1879: Manuel
Nuñes opened the rst shop (1880) for the production of these small
lutes for the local market; Augusto Dias and José do Espirito Santo,
associates who followed him, opened their shops in 1884 and 1888,
respectively. einstrument was widely oered as a simplied, more easily
played guitar, and was made known to the public, for example, through
acampaign on the occasion of King Kalakaua’s jubilee celebration, where
hula dancers were accompanied with ‘ukuleles following an initiative of
Princess Lili‘uokolani. While the rajão played by Madeiran immigrants
was rst called a ‘taro-patch ddle’, the instrument later known as the
‘taro-patch’ (since 1916) is a double-string ‘ukulele.
It is quite surprising that the small braguinha or machete de braga
(also machete da braga) is still widely considered as the model for the
‘ukulele in standard encyclopaedias and in texts of ‘ukulele method books
and popular descriptions.
e fact that the ‘ukulele derives from that early taro-patch9 (or the
rajão) was quite well known to many ‘ukulele musicians of the early
twentieth century, although we still can nd entries in serious academic
encyclopaedias describing the ‘ukulele as descendant of the braguinha.
Aslate as 1979, the story is mentioned in Kanahele’s Hawaiian Music and
e present-day ‘ukulele was adapted from the Portuguese instrument
called the braguinha, which was introduced into Hawai‘i in 1878 by the
rst group of Portuguese immigrants. Oddly enough, no member of the
group was able to play it, not even its owner, one Joao de Freitas. It was
not until the arrival of the second boatload of immigrants on August 22,
1879, that ‘ukulele history really began, for on board the Ravenscraig that
docked in Honolulu Harbor were not only the braguinha but musicians
who could play it and craftsmen who could make it. (Kanahele 1979:
is statement is probably directly related to an earlier entry in a Bulletin
of the Bernice P. Bishop Museum, where Helen Roberts had written on
the arrival of the braguinha in Ancient Hawaiian Music in nearly the same
words (Roberts 1926).
9 Belo (1997: 79) still mentions the taro-patch as being extended from ve to eight strings
though it is obvious that the modern taro-patch is derived directly from the ‘ukulele.
Mike Longworth, an authority on lute organology, writes that shortly
after the ‘ukulele was rst made by Martin Guitars in 1916, the taro-
patch was made. is instrument had eight strings, arranged in four pairs.
It, like its sister the ‘ukulele, used gut strings. e taro-patch was actually
the ancestor of the ‘ukulele in Hawai‘i. It is said to have been derived from
a guitar-like instrument brought to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese
sailors. However, he considers the evidence given as not well documented
and not factual (Longworth 1975), possibly a reection of his sense for
practical issues with the instrument.
Other early observers such as Bailey in 1914, Littig in 1924, or Morris
in 1937 have long known how the ‘ukulele came into being. Bailey
e ukulele, the typical native Hawaiian instrument of diminutive guitar
shape … was rst produced in Hawaii about the year 1879 and sprung
into such favor that the old Taro-patch ddle was immediately dethroned
in favor of its smaller brother. (Bailey 1914: no page numbers)
His statement indicates that the taro-patch (the rajão) was the larger
predecessor and in favour before the ‘ukulele appeared. Littig (1924)
agrees to that as well as Morris (1937). Also, Ernest Kaai may have seen
it quite clearly stating that the ‘ukulele was not an invention, but rather
acreation (Kaai 1916).
e ‘ukulele is said to be played to accompany songs, this often together
with a guitar that might have been the unmodied guitar or later the
slack-key guitar (Stillman 1989). Nordyke and Noyes give an example for
the accompaniment of the song ‘Kaulana Na Pua’:
In early performances of this song in the late nineteenth century, Western
string instruments, including guitar, ‘ukulele, and later steel guitar, aswell
as traditional instruments of ipu heke (double gourd drum), ‘uli-‘uli
(feathered gourd rattles), and other native products were used for musical
accompaniment. Now ‘Kaulana Na Pua’ is arranged for production by all
instruments of the band and orchestra. (Nordyke and Noyes 1993: 35)
‘Ukulele predecessors in the
Madeira—the wood island—was untroubled by human civilisation until
the rst inhabitants arrived with their socially fragmented traditions.
ey quickly adapted to the truly challenging life on the island. ehard-
working farmers and craftsmen with their families left Portugal for
dierent reasons and in waves of a few hundred people, resettling their
villages along the valleys and the coastline rst on Porto Santo and
later on Madeira. From the fteenth until the eighteenth centuries, the
population increased to 120,000; 20,000 were imported Moorish slaves
from North Africa.
In the nineteenth century, many Madeirans moved to other places for
economic reasons. Diseases often demolished the vines. In 1848 oidium
(powdery mildew) ravaged the plants, and by 1853 vine cultivation was
almost totally abandoned. Twenty years later, phylloxera crippled the
Agricultural disasters and a hopeless political situation caused the
Madeirans to leave their villages for Guyana, Brazil, Indonesia, and
Hawai‘i. In Guyana they were outsiders amongst British, French,
andDutch, even if they were well known for their religious festas and their
‘guitars’, called rajão or rezzo. e Guyanese Portuguese Noel M. Menezes
remarks: ‘e Madeirean emigrant then did not arrive in British Guyana
devoid of everything but his conical blue cloth cap, coarse jacket, short
trousers, and his rajão’ (Menezes 2000).
Hawai‘i seemed to be a special location in the history of Madeiran
emigrants. e coincidence that caused the resettlement on the Hawaiian
Islands is, therefore, a remarkable story.
When the plantation business became weak and declined in Hawai‘i,
many of the still poor Madeirans went to the American west coast
(Pap1976), where they eventually engaged in the dairy industry and
related cattle husbandry that was beginning to ourish around San José
and San Francisco (Holmes and D’Alessandro 1990). e Madeiran
immigrants were slightly amused by the fanatic Americans playing the
‘ukulele, to which they attached a colonial history in the name of Infante
Dom Henrique, the Seafarer from Portugal.
As it was on the Portuguese mainland, the public musical practices of the
people on the Madeira archipelago were divided into at least three spheres
(Freitas 1992 ):
1. Communal representation that was dierentiated according to aspecic
2. Spiritual and/or religious practice that was dierentiated according
tospecic gender roles and intra-cultural or social hierarchies.
3. Entertainment, especially as an important part of 1 and 2 when closely
connected to various types of festa—festivals of the church (the most
important public institution related to traditional cultural aairs)
dedicated to dierent saints of regional or inter-regional spiritual
ese three spheres were practised all over the world where Portuguese
settled. e migrants realised their musical life always with a strong
regard for their local roots and attention to maintaining their values.
Onecomponent of keeping local roots is involvement with dierent types
of string instruments (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Simple braguinha (left) to be repaired (from the 1960s)
and details of a braguinha newly manufactured according to traditional
models by Carlos Jorge Pereira Rodrigues in Funchal (centre and right)
Source: Gisa Jähnichen and Carlos Jorge Pereira Rodrigues
In early nineteenth-century Madeira, two dierent types of lutes
could always be found. One was the costly nine-string viola da arame.
eMadeiran viola was then an instrument of craftsmen and merchants,
who were well situated and educated although they were rather amateurs
in musical practice. e other type was a small four-string cavaquinho,
which was called machete or braguinha, ‘small piece of wood’, an often
elaborate and expensive instrument for ladies and other people who
were ‘better o’. ere were also some simple versions for farmers and
shermen, quite similar to the cavaquinho of Lisbon, which was an
essential melodic instrument for entertainment (M. Morais 2003).
e braguinha was not only striking due to its small dimensions; it was
to a certain degree functionally in competition with the violin from the
mainland, the latter occasionally being a replacement for the braguinha in
noble circles. In 1846, the lute teacher Manuel Joaquim Monteiro Cabrál
composed and compiled a score booklet in which we nd the instruction
‘Arranjadas para Machete e Guitarra’ (using the ‘gallant’ names machete
and guitarra for the braguinha and violão, respectively) as edited by
Manuel Morais. is booklet demonstrates the social reinterpretation
of the supposed low status of braguinha playing in that period of time,
as can also be seen in one of the manuscript pages shown in Figure 5,
which contains a number of copy mistakes from the original score
Most of the people who were willing to leave Madeira for reasons of
improving their living conditions were down-to-earth farmers and the
families of craftsmen, who could at most aord a simple rajão.10 It is still
the most-used instrument in rural ensembles, and many young musicians
start their guitar career with a Madeiran rajão.
10 e rajão remains today a symbol of pastoral harmony and the pure joy of life as the instrument
is less sophisticated and far more robust then the other two lutes.
Figure 5. Manuscript page from the collection of teacher Manuel
Joaquim Monteiro Cabrál (1846). This piece for braguinha, also known
as the machete, is called ‘Rita Polka’
Source: Reproduction, Gisa Jähnichen
Of the many lute makers in the nineteenth century, only a few were
known for their ability to produce lovely, elaborate braguinhas. Two of
them belong to the Nuñes family (possibly an uncle to Manuel Nuñes)
and his son:
• Nuñes, Octavianno João (1812–1870); identied on a machete label
as: ‘Octavianno João Nuñes / Artista de Violas Francezas / Guitarras,
Rabecas, Rabecoes / e Machetes / Rua de S. Paulo, No 35 A. / Madeira’
• Nuñes Diabinho, João (c. 1850–1927), son and successor
ofOctavianno João Nuñes. (King 2007b)
ese men did not leave for any other part of the world, being quite well
situated due to their capabilities and their achievements. ey preferred
to remain on Madeira, unlike some other family members who worked in
the same business, but who were far less successful, Manuel Nuñes being
one of these. In the end, his instrument-making qualities being of this
less-successful nature, he produced mainly furniture.
One of the excellent braguinhas of Manuel Nuñes’s uncle can be seen in
the main collection of the Historical Art Museum of Vienna, Austria.11
John King (2007a), one of the fanatic ‘ukulele musicians and researchers
in the United States, advises on his website ‘Nalu Music’ that fans and
other friends of the ‘ukulele’s history should visit the prototype of the
‘ukulele’s direct ancestor. e curator of the museum in Vienna himself
got in contact with these ‘ukulele fans to discuss a special exhibit. Heseems
to be yet another victim of a very creative story on the ‘ukulele, since
he is convinced about an immediate connection between his original
nineteenth-century braguinha and the ‘ukulele.
In the late eighteenth century, the so-called violão-type was invented in
the Portuguese mainland. It can be seen as a parallel development to the
later-introduced Spanish guitar that was for a long time called ‘French
guitar’ due to its regional origin. is lute type also reached Madeira,
butnot until the late nineteenth century.
Instead, the Madeirans developed the rajão, a unique instrument,
universally convenient, cheaper, and stronger than the viola da arame,
and blending perfectly with the sound of the other two lute types. Local
instrument makers increased production of the rajão rather than forcing
people to spend their hard-earned income on violas. Not only lute makers,
but also other craftsmen (cabinetmakers or millworkers) joined the
attractive rajão business. e rajão was preferred by most of the musicians
for its tuning and playing techniques, which allowed it to substitute for
the other more expensive lutes. In Figure 6, a typical ensemble of lutes
isshown. It features two rajãos, but only one of each of the other lutes.
Figure 7 shows clearly the steps in Nuñes’s work (along with that of Dias
and Santo) to develop a small rajão, something appropriate to Hawaiian
needs. ey removed the D-string (marked with a cross) of the rajão, then
they reduced the size of the rajão, or used a vastly simplied braguinha
model. e tuning of the new instrument is a slight modication of the
rajão tuning and is re-entrant, that is the G string is an octave higher than
one would normally expect it to be. e tuning gave rise to the mnemonic
‘My Dog Has Fleas’.
11 ‘Machete (Machete de braco), Octavianno João Nuñes, Madeira, early 19th century. Portuguese
descant guitar with 4 strings, SL 333, CL 224.’
Figure 6. Typical ensemble of lutes today (a group from Santana,
Portugal): (from left to right) braguinha, rajão, rajão, viola da arame,
and violão. Observed at the festa in Arco São Jorge, June 2007
viola da arame braguinha rajão ‘ukulele
Figure 7. Tunings of the viola da arame, braguinha, rajão, and ‘ukulele.
Letters (a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h) show dierent string gauges and possible
variations in parentheses (the letters do not indicate pitches or
string tunings). Numbers show the order of strings, from left to right
in decreasing order. Repeated numbers show the same pitches or
pitches separated by an octave. The double arrow indicates the range
of registers in which the ‘ukulele can be tuned; one of these, shown
at bottom right, is a clear departure from the tuning of the braguinha
e complicated sound of a typical Madeiran ensemble that included
the nine-string viola da arame, the braguinha, and later rajão didn’t t
the musical demands of Hawaiian players. Each lute in the Madeiran
ensemble realises a specialised musical function in the ensemble. Only the
rajão combined both melody-shaping and harmony-supporting functions
and therefore could easily become a gateway—the ‘ukulele—into another
Flora Fox, the late granddaughter of Manuel Nuñes, lived in California
and was the owner of one of the rst ‘ukuleles. She, as cross-cultural
witness, told Dan Scanlan from Grass Valley, California, the following
onher 104th birthday:
‘I have that ukulele … but a bigger one. My grandfather was the originator
of the ukulele. He made the rajaos [rezzaos]. And then from there he
went to Honolulu. And the Hawaiians couldn’t play that big guitar, so,
he made a small one. at was his idea. I’ve got one hanging in my room.
And I and my sister, we used to entertain quite a bit on dierent places
singing Hawaiian music. Now, what’s this?’
Scanlan: ‘is ukulele is made by your uncle [Leonardo].’
Flora Fox: ‘Oh, yes, but what I have is larger than this. How it happened:
He made guitars, but the Hawaiians (didn’t) couldn’t learn to play the
guitar. So he decided to make it small, to make this ukulele.’ (Scanlan
and Fox 2002)
Scanlan conrms that the invented instrument could be played using the
same ngering for making chords on the guitar, but with no bass. Like the
rajão, it could be used for melody and rhythm, in ensemble or as a solo
instrument. Of course, this can only be said retrospectively, due to the fact
that the guitar was unknown to average Hawaiians at that time, hence its
tunings or bass strings also remained unknown.
As the ‘ukulele grew in popularity, the rajão faded away. Some players later
wanted more volume, so Nuñes doubled each string and appropriated
the rajão’s pre-‘ukulele nickname for the new instrument: ‘taro-patch’.
Many bands in Hawai‘i as well as in California, the next landing place
of the Madeiran-Hawaiian settlers, adopted not only the ‘ukulele but
also the new taro-patch after the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1915
Later, the company Martin Guitars would also make a taro-patch.
e‘ukulele expanded even more in the 1920s with the creation of the
tiple, a 10-string ‘ukulele, on which the two outer strings are doubled and
the two inner strings tripled.
Figure 8 is a chart that summarises the similarities of shapes, gauges,
tunings, string varieties, ensemble and solo functions, repertoires, and
social and ethnic associations. It shows that the rajão/‘ukulele was the
common instrument, and it served the function of guitar amongst
theHawaiians. Furthermore, the rajão was actually ‘the instrument’ ofthe
Madeirans everywhere in the world.
e ‘ukulele reached its commercially supported crest of popularity as an
exotic souvenir after the Panama-Pacic World Exhibition 1915 in San
Francisco made Hawai‘i one of the rst holiday destinations of the United
States. Following that event, nearly 80 per cent of the instruments were
produced outside of Hawai‘i on the US mainland, some of them of such
poor quality that a petition from Hawai‘i clamoured for removing the
misleading stamp ‘made in Hawaii’.
braguinha or rajão or modern
machete da braga ‘taro-patch’ ‘ukulele taro-patch tiple
shape/dimension + X → ←
tuning + X + +
string variety + X + +
ensemble function + X + +
solo function + X + +
repertoire → ← X + +
soical association + X + +
ethnic association → ← X + +
time: … 1878 1880 1910 1920 …
places: Madeira Hawaii + United States world
Figure 8. Similarity chart for braguinha, rajão, ‘ukulele, modern taro-
patch, and tiple. The chart includes a timeline and places of main
→ ← = dependent
Because the braguinha was traditionally produced in a much more
sophisticated way than the simple rajão, not every cabinetmaker could
create a proper braguinha with a bright and well-carrying sound.
Braguinhas can be considered the equivalent to violins in an ensemble;
that is, as melody instruments rather than a harmonically supporting
instrument, such as the viola da arame. Only the rajão could render both
functions, therefore making it the preferred instrument of those who
could not aord the costly variety and who were also satised with a less-
Figure 9 shows a comparison between a rajão from 1900 used on Hawai‘i,
a Madeiran rajão, and a Nuñes taro-patch from 1910. Both instruments,
the rajão/taro-patch and the ‘ukulele/taro-patch, were often called by the
same name, although they were denitely dierent. e modern taro-
patch is an extended ‘ukulele.
Figure 9. Unlabelled rajão (Hawai‘i, 1900), Madeiran rajão (1906),
and Nuñes (modern) taro-patch (Hawai‘i, 1910)
Source: King 2007a
Meanwhile, during the rise and distribution of the ‘ukulele over the entire
world, other multicultural combinations were created, for example, the
Hawaiian ‘ukulele, Spanish guitar, Madeiran rajão, all played by Hawaiian
girls with leis posing for a postcard, as shown in Figure 10.
Figure 10. ‘Ukulele, guitar, and machete da rajão. Hawai‘i, c. 1900
Source: Coloured photo: Shlomo Pestcoe, open access
Manuel Nuñes didn’t try to teach Hawaiians to play these instruments,
nor was he a musician. What he did was the following: by observation he
discerned the true musical interests of Hawaiians and the time they were
willing to invest in new experiences. e complicated sound of a three-
layered ensemble of dierent instruments with their various Madeiran
textural functions could not work well. erefore, he formulated an
unusual business idea, which he elaborated together with his two friends,
Augusto Dias and Jose da Espirito Santo, both good cabinetmakers and
prospective specialists in rajão/‘ukulele production. ey opened their
shops and—as a special marketing trick—they arranged meetings with
the king’s family to introduce their creation. Princess Lili‘uokalani was
herself very interested in music and composed in her lifetime more than
250 songs that were accompanied by the ‘ukulele. Possibly her most
famous work is the song ‘Aloha Oe’, which later became a movie song hit
(Reyes and Rampell 1995).
Many dictionaries and articles wrongly point to the small braguinha as the
ancestor of the Hawaiian ‘ukulele, probably because of the similar shape
and dimensions. But shape alone is not sucient cultural proof when
taken in isolation from musical and social function.
e main consumers were Hawaiians, both rich as well as poor. So, Nuñes
and his friends made ‘ukuleles of dierent sizes and materials. String sets,
too, were made simpler and cheaper than on the Madeiran islands, an
important selling point for the consumers. e reduced variety of string
gauges (see Figure 11) delivers yet more evidence that the ‘ukulele derives
from the rajão.
viola da arame braguinha rajão ‘ukulele
A B A B
carrinho nº-10 1 3 1 1 1 2
carrinho nº-9 2 1
carrinho nº-4 1 1 1 1 2 2
toeira * carrinho
toeira * carrinho
nº-4 2 2
bordão da guitarra
de fado nº-41 1 1 1 2
bordão da guitarra
portuguesa nº-41 2
bordão da viola
francesa nº-73 1 1
latão nº-4 1 1
total strings 9 4 5 4
Figure 11. Variety of string gauges for the viola da arame, braguinha,
rajão, and ‘ukulele.
preceded by ‘nº’ that refers to special material compositions of this type. Both the string
pitch ranges for individual instruments. Two combinations of strings are listed for the viola
da arame and rajão
e viola da arame needs seven or eight strings of dierent gauges, the
braguinha needs four, and the rajão three or four. e ‘ukulele needs only
two dierent gauges; cheap versions use only one.
Easy to play and tune, the ‘ukulele became the bestseller of all varieties of
Portuguese lutes in history. But the question is: When does one instrument
begin to be another? Furthermore, why is it called ‘a Portuguese lute’ when
the changes occurred in Hawai‘i?
Hawaiian migrants, craftsmen, and farmers were quickly assimilated in
the United States, as well as on Hawai‘i. ey brought their Portuguese
way of life and their cultural thinking with them. e big boom of ‘ukulele
and later taro-patch began under the leadership of a few businessmen
such as Leonardo Nuñes, the son of Manuel Nuñes, who co-operated
with non-Portuguese singers and musicians.
Now, in the third millennium, one can nd more than 1,000 rich
collections of ‘ukuleles, taro-patches, banjo ukes (a banjo with taro-patch
tuning), and all of the other ‘ukulele-like instruments in the United States.
ey are all waiting for proclamation of their heroic history of adventures
as originally Portuguese instruments travelling around the world.
Some musical aspects
It is quite possible to create historical-looking instruments and legends
around their origin, as I have shown. But it is very dicult to understand
why the three instrument makers—Nuñes, Dias, and Santo—were forced
to be creative.
Portuguese festas always have their locally dened musical repertoire.
isrepertoire needs special musical skills that have their roots in the song
and dance traditions of the Portuguese mainland as well as of theAtlantic
e terms puntoado and rasgado are playing techniques associated,
in Europe, with lutes and guitars and their respective historical
development. Madeiran musicians are acquainted with two other very
important concepts called varejemento, which deserve a closer look.
e rst is a kind of synchronised playing of dance patterns. It creates
a‘limping’ rhythm that can rarely be transcribed into European music
notation using conventional methods. e second concept is a kind
of metric separation within dance patterns. In other words, without
knowledge of the dances, the lute playing is not really comprehensible.
An example regarding the rst concept can help clarify the situation.
epiece ‘Cana verde’ (Figure 12) was recorded by Ernesto Veiga Oliveira
and Benjamim Pereira in 1960, when there were no spectrographic tools.
Transcription of the piece into a conventional ve-line sta is dicult
because the rhythmic structure is ‘unthinkable’. Domingo Morais,
acolleague of Oliveira’s, tried but he did not succeed for a very basic
reason: he did not consider the relation between musical rhythm and
the rhythmic dynamic of the steps of the dance—steps that do not
follow evenly distributed beats, but rather the time sequence needed for
thedistance covered. e single beats are not regular, but are as long as the
respective steps (Figure 13). Only this correlation enables a solution for
the problem as we must observe how the piece is danced and know that
the musicians are following the dancers.
Figure 12. ‘Cana verde’
e second feature, that of metric separation within dance patterns,
isvery common on Madeira. Normally, the instruments have to play the
main structure. However, the dancers are constructing another rhythmical
shape overarching the main structure (Pereira Rodrigues 2007). erefore
the repertoire was, as can be assumed, one of the main problems in
introducing Madeiran lutes into Hawaiian society: the Hawaiians could
not cope with the strange new rhythms. A new instrument would require
not only another shape than the common rajão, it would have to be made
for another type of music. And so it was. is important move of the
‘ukulele creators allowed a young (new) ‘entertainment industry’ to pick
up the ‘ukulele and the modern taro-patch quickly, all by opening up the
repertoire to new possibilities whilst ignoring the festa/dance context.
Figure 13. Rhythmic relationship according to the smallest unit found
through measuring the distance between the high-volume levels
(plucking the strings) within two bars (6/8 + 2/4). The relationship
24:14:6:16:14 is an unimaginable rhythmic structure that would divide
a bar into 74 pulses and the two bars into a relationship of 44:30 when
being analysed in isolation from patterns of the dance steps
Later on in the 1920s, just as Nuñes, Dias, and Santo had sold their
creations as Portuguese originals, the newly created instruments were
integrated into early 1920s American musical life (in California) as local
sound colours of Hawai‘i. Professional ‘ukulele players such as July Paka,
William Ellis, and especially Ernest Kaai explored the solo capabilities
ofthe ‘ukulele, a function that their originators intended by choosing
the rajão as the functional prototype. Additionally, there was a need for
the de-Hawaiianising of the repertoire. e repertoire was to change
rapidly again in the 1930s and 1940s, when ‘ukulele playing started to
be outmoded compared to other professional musical entertainment
Now, a century later, we can observe a revival of the ‘ukulele movement.
Many clubs and insider groups are not only practising music, they also
research the history of their beloved musical instrument and collect data
relevant to their historical ‘heroes’ like Arthur Godfrey, Jesse Kalima,
Frank Austin, Kazunori Murakami, Kahauanu Lake, and Herbert Ohta
(Belo 1997; Fayne 2012). In 1998, a group of motivated amateurs
organised a meeting between Madeirans and descendants of Madeirans
who had emigrated to Hawai‘i and the United States. ey came together
for concerts in Funchal (the capital of Madeira) and Lisbon (Pereira
Rodrigues 2007) and played the ancient mourisca, a dance that draws
on the mixed culture of Portuguese and Moorish people on Madeira.
Ina recording of the event, one can hear the rhythmical diculties that
occurred between the Madeira limping style and the more rhythmically
rigid eorts of the American ‘ukulele players.
Dan Scanlan, the colleague whose enthusiasm motivated my research,
expressed his dreams about the relationship between braguinha and
‘ukulele in the song ‘O luto lho’, closing with the words ‘sharing future
I sit into the little shop
To ‘Ocina’ de Carlos Jorge
an ancient braguinha on his wall,
yes, it’s sunshine far, far away.
O luto lho, foreign of the distant sea,
O luto lho, sharing future history.
e Madeira musicians were not really happy about the enthusiastic
world travellers, the Americans who claimed to be adopted as wild
children. e history as told by the Americans, as spurred by romantic
imagination, was not true. Scanlan himself wrote in a paper presented at
aconference on alternative music movements in Long Island:
It can be said that the braguinha is the father of the ukulele. But it is also
true the rajão is the mother of the ukulele. e ukulele took the physical
size from its father, but got its attitude, personality and tuning from its
mother, the rajão. (Scanlan 2004)
Many things could be modied such as the number of strings and their
size, their tuning, the shape of the body, the tuning pegs, or the wood used.
at could have been with specic purpose or incidentally. However, the
very subject of reinterpretation of the music itself turned out to be the
deciding clue in order to discover the real story. And it is still ongoing …
Carlos Jorge, the man celebrated Dan Scanlan’s song, ‘created’ a rajinha
or bragijão (gure 14). His friend Mario André, the leading braguinha
player of the aforementioned reunion concerts, began exploration of some
‘ukulele-like sounds, as can be heard in an innovative recording from
June 2007 (Father and Son Reunion 2007, mentioned in Scanlan 2004).
Could this be the beginning of a new chapter?
Figure 14. Carlos Jorge Pereira Rodrigues in his workshop with his
new ‘invention’: a rajinha, just in case we cannot accept the history
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