Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Me And My Uke

So, how did the ukulele get it's name?  Well, I've got two stories on that one, and  the first is the better known of the two.  Ukulele is from the Hawaiian and it roughly translates as jumping flea.  One would normally think that because the instrument is so small  and the strumming movement so fast that it would recall the insect, and that is part of it.  But, there is just a hint of British imperialism that goes along with that version of the story.  It seems that King Kalakaua employed Edward William Purvis, one of those ubiquitous Englishman, imperialist adventurer turned mercenary, in his officer corps.  Unlike the rest of the King's retainers, Purvis was a very small person, and full of nervous ticks.  He was also a lover of the instrument, and played rapidly.  His Polynesian comrades liked to make fun of him behind his back.  He was the jumping flea, and the name got transferred to the instrument.  The other story is a lot less interesting, and much more likely to be true.  It comes from Queen Lili'uokalani, the last monarch of Hawaii.  According to her, the name comes from two Hawaiian words, uku, which translates as gift and lele, which means to come.  Therefore ukulele means the gift that came here.

 And while we're on the subject of Hawaiian rulers, the next time a Texan says, "Well, after all, Texas was the only state that was once an independent country, and that's why we're so special," remind them of Hawaii.

So, even though the ukulele is thought of as an Hawaiian instrument, it's origins are actually Portuguese.  It was very popular with Portuguese whalers and they may have introduced the uke to the islands. (There was also a wave of Portuguese immigration to Hawaii in the late nineteenth century, an alternate explanation.)   In the nineteenth century, the Hawaiian Islands were at the center of the world's whaling industry.  With the Atlantic hunting grounds all but exhausted, European and American whalers were forced to seek their prey in the Pacific Ocean.  The waters around Hawaii were teaming with whales, and unfortunately for the native Hawaiians, they were rather friendly and welcoming of strangers.  The Hawaiians got the ukulele from Portuguese sailors, (Or settlers.) as well as a whole host of western diseases, land taken and carved up among sugar interests,  an overthrow of their government, and a certain amount of cultural corruption.

Fun fact about Hawaiian music.  In 1929,  Hawaiian born Yukihiko Haida went to Japan, his parents homeland, and formed The Moana Glee Club, a band that played Hawaiian music.  Their popularity soared and ukulele music became very popular in Japan.  During World War 2, the Japanese government attempted to suppress American music.  Jazz, big band, and Hawaiian music were targeted as degenerate forms of expression.  Despite the imperial government's best efforts, Hawaiian music retained it's popularity throughout the war.  In 1959, Haida, still living in Japan, formed The Nihon Ukulele Association.  Today, Japan is a hotbed of Hawaiian music and culture.

And finally, I have to recommend one of my favorite bands, Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys.  Klein, the chanteuse of the ukulele, performs and records songs from the twenties and thirties with the occasional klezmer tune thrown in.  Type her name in your favorite search engine and bring up her website.  She posts a number of old, vaudeville related photos that are worth seeing.

Written on the back of the photo, "Me and my uke."  I'm thinking cabin in the Adirondacks rather than Hawaii.

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