It could be that in 1879 in Honolulu, Joao Fernandes, who had just disembarked from Madeira, played the braguina with such virtuosity and speed that the Hawaiians, impressed with his jumping fingers, called the instrument the "ukulele", meaning dancing flea. But then according to Queen Lili'uokalani the name means "the gift that came here", made from "uku" (gift or reward) and "lele" (to come). Perhaps the name comes from "ukeke lele" or "dancing ukeke" (the ukeke is a Hawaiian musical bow). Some say that Edward Purvis, an English army officer, who was a small man and an agile braguina player, was himself nicknamed "ukulele" and the name later became connected to the instrument itself. Then again, it could be that Gabriel Davian and Judge W. L. Wilcox coined and translated the name, joking that the way one scratched at it, the instrument must have been a jumping flea.
Either way, we’re in the midst of a mini ukulele boom – sales are surging and children are more likely to pick up a ukulele at school than a recorder; perhaps because they sound better and they’re even easier to learn. Taylor Swift plays, as does Meghan Trainor, with her ukulele acoustic version of All About That Bass.
“They’re so simple, they’re the obvious instrument to get started on,” says Will Grove-White, member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
“You can play all the songs in rock’n’roll with just three chords, so you’re quickly busting out tunes.” All you need is C, F and G7. Then you can play Twist and Shout, Rock Around the Clock and most blues songs. Singin’ in the Rain takes just a C and a G7. “It’s all about chords, playing four notes at once and strumming them, then singing melody over it,” says Grove-White. “In this quick fix world where you want instant results, the ukulele is ideal.”
It is also a very sociable instrument. “It’s a great way to meet people, get together, play and sing songs.”
And although it’s quickly rewarding, you can take the ukulele to any level – for evidence see the technical virtuosity of ukulele stars James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro on YouTube (Jake’s version of While My Guitar Gently Weeps has 13 million views).
The ukulele first came to light when Madeiran immigrants brought it to Hawaii in the 19th century. By the 1920s, millions were sold across America and most households owned one. Tiny Tim made it famous with his 1968 hit Tiptoe Through The Tulips, but its roots are rock’n’roll too, says Grove-White.
Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and David Byrne play. “Hendrix started out on one – arguably there’d be no Jimi without the ukulele,” he says. Or George Formby for that matter. Any instrument that can unite those two names must be worth learning.With thanks & acknowledgement to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and Emma Cook of the Guardian newspaper