Nothing says “Hawaii” like the melodious rhythms of the ukelele. If you visit between March and October, you will enjoy free annual ukulele festivals on Oahu, the Big Island of Hawaii, Kauai and Maui. Past guest artists have included Grammy Award pop singer, James Ingram, jazz saxophonist Gabe Baltazar, Santana’s bass player Benny Rietveld, and drummer Noel Okimoto. Amidst the spectacular Technicolor of the Hawaiian islands, local food, dance and craftsmanship blends with the music and creates an unparalleled experience. Some festivals even feature ukulele lessons and valuable door prizes, while others sell authentic, handcrafted instruments.
A Brief History of Ukelele in Hawaii
Historians speculate that the first ukeleles were made by Portuguese cabinet makers and sugar cane workers from the Madeira Islands, who arrived in the Kingdom of Hawaii in 1879. The music of these immigrants made a lasting impression on the people of Honolulu. In August of 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that Madeira islanders have been entertaining people with nightly street concerts, played on instruments that were a cross between the guitar and the banjo. The instrument was the small, four-string Madeira guitar. Once called the machete, it eventually evolved into the Hawaiian ukulele.
After they fulfilled their obligations to the sugar cane industry, many of the Madeira immigrants relocated from the plantations to Honolulu, where they could practice their former professions in a cosmopolitan setting. While most were cabinet makers by trade, they also used their woodworking skills to craft stringed instruments.
Several stories explain how the ukulele got it’s name. Some say that Queen Lili’uokalani thought it came from the Hawaiian words for “the gift that came here”, or “uku, ” meaning gift or reward, and “lele,” which means “to come.” Other historians suggest that the instrument was originally called “ukeke lele” or “dancing ukeke,” with “uke” being the name of a Hawaiian three stringed musical bow.
Another legend recounts a story about Gabriel Davian and Judge W. L. Wilcox, who was a member of a well-known Hawaiian family. Apparently, the two men attended a housewarming party at the Wilcox home in Kahili. Davian entertained guests with a ukulele he had made himself. When one of the guests asked the name of the instrument, Davion joked that, judging from the way one “scratched at it,” it was a “jumping flea.” The guest asked Judge Wilcox, who was fluent in the Hawaiian language, to translate, and Wilcox supposedly answered “ukulele.”
Ukulele in Modern Music
Perhaps you never had a particular interest in ukulele music, but one day, you turned on the radio, and heard an enticing cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Or perhaps it was a haunting rendition of Wonderful World.
The singer and ukulele player was Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole. In Hawaiian his last name means “the fearless eye, the bold face.” At age 10, he performed at Steamboats in Waikiki – where his father was a bouncer and his mother was the manager – and as a teenager, he formed a band called the Mãkaha Sons of Ni’ihau. In 1993, he decided to go off on his own. It was the best decision of his musical career. After signing with Mountain Apple Company, his music graced the soundtracks of films such as Meet Joe Black, Finding Forrester and 50 First Dates.
Save the Date for These 2013 Ukulele Festivals
In Oahu, the 43rd Annual Ukulele Festival will take place on Sunday, July 21, 2013, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm at Kapiolani Park, Waikiki, Oahu.
The 13th Annual Waikoloa Ukulele Festival will be held on Saturday, March 2, 2013, from 1:00 to 7:00 pm at the Kings’ Shops and Queens’ MarketPlace in Waikoloa Beach Resort.
The 8th Annual Maui Ukulele Festival takes place on Sunday, October 13, 2013, from 1:00 t 6:00 pm at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahului, Maui.
Kauai has not yet announced the date of its 9th Annual Kauai Ukulele Festival, but it will take place at the Kukui Grove Center in Lihue, Kauai. The center sits in the Ha`upu mountain range, which is one of the most spectacular mountains on Kauai.