That Jumping Flea!
The Hawaiians had never heard anything like it. In the late 19th century, Joao Fernandes, a Portuguese musician just off the boat, began to play a miniature guitar that he called a brauginha. So quickly did his plucking fingers jump among the four taut strings, that the islanders were laughingly reminded of a flea hopping about. So they called his little instrument a “jumping flea” – uku lele – which you had better pronounce “oo-koo-lay-lay” (not “yuke-a-lay-lee”) if you want to be recognized as taking its music seriously. For folks in Hawaii do consider it a serious instrument.
The rest of the world first noticed the ukulele in 1915, when Hawaiian entertainers were among the featured acts in the expositions that both San Francisco and San Diego hosted to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. Soon, an ukulele craze was sweeping the U.S. During the 1920s and ’30s, thousands of youngsters were strumming, and a few virtuosos arose. By the 1950s, though, the craze had passed: songs that had been recorded with ukulele accompaniment were dismissed as ditties, and the instrument was widely disdained as a toy.
But in the ’70s, with the revival of traditional Hawaiian folk music, some of the men and women who had taken up the ukulele began plucking out the intricate melodies and sophisticated chords of popular songs, vintage swing and jazz standards, and even selections from the repertoire of the classical guitar. One of the most comprehensive websites about the ukulele is www.fleamarketmusic.com
With the musical revival came an instrumental revival. The small figure-eight-shaped “soprano” ukulele is the most popular; some performers use a larger “tenor” size, for a deeper tone. The most desireable instruments are made from mahogany or koa; those crafted by Kamaka Hawaii
(www.kamakahawaii.com) are particularly revered, though the most famous Kamaka ukulele is shaped like (and hence called) the Pineapple.
Today, ukulele virtuosos give sold-out concerts, and hundreds – perhaps thousands – of folks are taking lessons or practicing. So don’t be surprised when you see teenaged boys and girls hanging out at the beach parks, not with boom-boxes, but with ukuleles, playing and singing much as youngsters began doing a century ago.