A Strum Through ‘Ukulele History

From Madeira to Hawaii to the San Francisco Bay

by John King and Jim Tranquada

Capital On April 23, 1907—almost a year to the day following San Francisco’s great earthquake—Jack London and his wife, Charmian, sailed London’s yacht Snark through the Golden Gate bound for Hawaii on the first leg of a projected round-the-world cruise. Twenty-seven days later, overdue and feared lost, the Snark limped past throngs of well-wishers lining the wharves of Honolulu Harbor. The following day, Mrs. London took notice of a dark-skinned young man delivering the mail and recorded the moment in her journal: “My first Hawaiian on his native heath.” However, she was mistaken; he was full-blooded Portuguese. “Alack, my first Hawaiian is Portuguese,” she lamented, “and Jack is hilarious.”

Charmian and Jack London, Honolulu, 1907.
(Hawaii State Archives)

Capital Organized emigration of Portuguese to Hawaii began in 1878 with the arrival of 120 passengers from Madeira; within ten years, 11,000 Pokiki would call Hawaii home—most of them recruited as laborers for sugar plantations. When 423 men, women, and children disembarked from the British ship Ravenscrag on August 23, 1879 after a four-month voyage from Madeira, twenty-five-year-old João Fernandes staged an impromptu celebration, bursting into song while accompanying himself with a machete de braga, a stunted pinewood guitar “with scale marks [frets] all the way down to the [sound] hole and with the top left unpolished to improve its tone.”

At the time of the Ravenscrag’s arrival, the machete de braga—more often referred to as the machete—was the most popular musical instrument in Madeira, a small island group off the coast of Morocco. Described as a “viola pequena,” or little guitar, by Raphael Bluteau in 1716, the machete went largely unnoticed until the mid-nineteenth century. “The machete is peculiar to [Madeira],” visitor Robert White observed in 1851. “It is a small guitar, with four strings of catgut…used by the peasantry to accompany the voice and the dance. The music consists of a succession of simple chords, but, in the hands of an accomplished player, the machete is capable of much more pleasing harmony; and the stranger is sometimes agreeably surprised to hear the fashionable music of our ball-rooms given with considerable effect, on what appears a very insignificant instrument.”

Cândido Drummond de Vasconcellos (fl. 1841-188?) was just such an accomplished machete player. According to the Funchal newspaper O Defensor, Drummond’s performance at an 1841 concert was “listened to with the greatest attention” and received “thunderous applause, the general opinion being that it would be difficult to find a rival for Mr. Drummond.” Remarkably, the music of Drummond survives, preserved in a manuscript of machete and guitar duets dated 1846 that surfaced in Madeira in the 1990s.

“Country Musicians,” from A History of Madeira, 1821.
(Collection of John King)

Capital Ohe appeal of this other-island music was not lost on contemporary Hawaiian listeners. Scarcely two weeks after the arrival of the Ravenscrag, an article entitled “Portuguese Musicians” appeared in the Hawaiian Gazette:

“During the past week a band of Portuguese musicians, composed of Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The musicians are true performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of cross between a guitar and banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels. We confess to having enjoyed the music ourselves and hope to hear more of it.”

However, little more was heard from the Madeirans, who under the terms of their three-year contracts shipped out to plantations on the islands of Hawaii, Maui, and Kauai. Most Ravenscrag passengers did not return to Honolulu until the early 1880s, when they resumed their former trades as “mechanics, cobblers, tinkers and all sorts” since few—if any—were agriculturists.

Advertisement for Madeira Wine, Pacific Commercial Advertiser, August 30, 1879. (Hawaii State Library)

Capital Among the first to settle in Honolulu were cabinetmakers Augusto Dias (1842-1915), Manuel Nunes (1843-1922), and Jose do Espirito Santo (1850-1905). By 1886, all three had opened shops making furniture and stringed instruments, including guitars, five-string rajãoes, and machetes—the latter two referred to as taro-patch fiddles. Within three years Dias, Nunes, and Espirito Santo would create a hybrid instrument that combined the small size and figure-eight body shape of the machete with the “my-dog-has-fleas” tuning (sans fifth string) of the rajão. It was called the ‘ukulele.

Advertisements for Dias and Nunes “machets,” O Luso Hawaiiano, August 15, 1885. (Hamilton Library, University of Hawaii)

Capital Crafted from the indigenous Hawaiian wood Acacia koa, the ‘ukulele made its debut in Island society during a party aboard the British yacht Nyanza at Honolulu in 1889, introduced by a trio of young women that included Princess Victoria Kaiulani. Due in part to royal patronage (Kaiulani’s uncle, King Kalakaua, was also a player) and the association of koa wood with aloha aina or love of the land, the ‘ukulele quickly assumed a Hawaiian character and an unprecedented popularity with the native population.

The identities of the first ‘ukulele players are mostly unrecorded, submerged within anonymous groups like “the Hawaiian Quintette Club” and “the famous Taro-Patch Quartette.” Nevertheless, the names of William Aeko (fl. 1893-1915), Mekia Kealakai (1867-1944), and Ernest Kaai (1881-1962) have surfaced as early proponents of Hawaiian music and the ‘ukulele. They were performers (Kealakai and Kaai were also teachers) with lengthy careers who played important roles in the spread of popular Hawaiian culture.

Ernest Kaai, from The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It, Revised Edition,1910, Wall, Nichols, Co., Honolulu.
(Collection of John King)

Capital Writer Charles Warren Stoddard was especially taken with the music he heard everywhere in Honolulu. “Hawaiians are passionately fond of music,” he wrote, whether it was “the clang of gourds…beaten by savage palms,” a passing “troop of troubadours strumming a staccato measure,” or “Professor Berger and his clever native lads”—Henry Berger (1844-1929) and the Royal Hawaiian Band. Berger and his musicians sailed to San Francisco in 1883 to perform at the Triennial Conclave of the Knights Templar, an event that would also include the first Mainland performance of Liliuokalani’s beloved “Aloha Oe.” After a week of grueling, nonstop performances that included light classics, marches, ballroom dance tunes, and an a capella vocal rendition of “Hawaii Ponoi,” the Royal Hawaiian Band were declared “prime favorites with the populace” by the San Francisco Chronicle. During his forty-year tenure, Berger continually expanded the RHB from its martial roots to include full orchestral strings, vocalists, and a glee club that sang Hawaiian songs while accompanying themselves on guitars, banjos, and ‘ukuleles. In the three decades following the Triennial Conclave, the RHB blazed a trail for all Hawaiian musicians—from San Francisco, throughout the West Coast, and ultimately across the continent.

The earliest known commercial mainland performance of Hawaiian music with the ‘ukulele was at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Kilauea Cyclorama featured a re-creation of the interior of Kilauea Crater, complete with a quartet of vocalists that included William Aeko. Dubbed the Volcano Singers, they accompanied themselves with Spanish guitars, five-string taropatch, and ‘ukulele. Along with the musicians, the entire exhibition was shipped west to San Francisco for display at the California Mid-Winter Fair in 1894.

Hawaiian musicians often supplemented their appearances at world’s fairs with performances on the vaudeville stage. After leaving the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, Mekia Kealakai’s troupe made its way west from Buffalo, performing on the Keith Vaudeville circuit, a tour that ended with engagements in San Francisco and Los Angeles. In the first decade of the twentieth century, Hawaiian performers could also be heard in such cities as New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Atlantic City. A Hawaiian quintet even entertained President Taft and his guest, Prince Tsai Tsao of China, during a state dinner at the White House in 1910.

Anthony Zablan, Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo, New York, 1901. (Hawaii State Archives)

Capital Onterest in the ‘ukulele grew with the production of Bird of Paradise in 1911. A stage drama set in Hawaii, Bird was the work of Bay Area playwright Richard Walton Tully and Los Angeles impresario Oliver Morosco; its most notable feature was a continuous undercurrent of Hawaiian music provided by a quintet of native musicians that included Aeko. The play opened on Broadway in 1912 and became a sensation, touring North America, Europe, and Australia. “It wasn’t until Tully’s opera, ‘The Bird of Paradise’ was produced,” Edison Phonograph Monthly reported, “that musicians gave any serious thought to the [‘ukulele] and its music.” But it was an event in San Francisco in 1915—one that capitalized on the popularity of Bird of Paradise and the success of Hawaiian music pioneers like Aeko, Kealakai, and Kaai—that would incite a worldwide craze for the ‘ukulele and Hawaiian music.

The Hawaii Exposition Commission began the task of organizing an Hawaiian exhibition for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1911, four years before the proposed start of the event. The commissioners decided on a French Renaissance building designed by C.W. Dickey, a Hawaii-born architect from Oakland. The main hall accommodated an aquarium filled with tropical fish that covered three walls; exploding from the fourth wall was a sculptural group by Gordon Usborne entitled “Surf Riders.” In the center of the hall “an Hawaiian quintette—amid palms and tree ferns—sang morning and afternoon those weird, unworldly melodies that seem to rise and fall on the long swells of the Pacific and take their tempo from them.”

Henry Kailimai’s Hawaiian Quintet, Hawaii Building, Panama-Pacific International Exposition. (Hawaii State Archives)

Capital The quintet (and the fish) were a hit, one of the most popular exhibitions at the P.P.I.E. “People were about ready for a new sensation in popular music,” exposition historian Frank Morton Todd wrote, “and the sweet voices of the Hawaiians you heard at the Hawaiian Building…were enough to start another musical vogue.” San Francisco-based Sherman, Clay & Co. took notice, calling themselves “the largest ‘ukulele dealers in the world” and advertising Hawaii-made ‘ukuleles and free lessons beginning in May 1915. Visitors to the P.P.I.E. also could purchase ‘ukuleles, taropatches, and other koa wood curios from the award-winning concession of Jonah Kumalae. On Thanksgiving Day, the San Francisco Chronicle threw a party for the “inmates of the Children’s Hospital and the Relief Home,” with music by Hawaiian musicians from the Keech Studios, owned by Hawaii-born brothers Alvin and Kelvin Keech. When industrialist Henry Ford visited, he was so enthralled by the Hawaiian music he hired the house quintet to come to Detroit when the P.P.I.E. ended in December 1915 to play for Ford Motor Company events throughout the Midwest. The imp was out of the bottle…

Jonah Kumalae. (Hawaii State Archives)

Capital That month, Jack and Charmian London returned to Hawaii aboard the steamer Great Northern—a voyage that featured Hawaiian entertainment supplied by the Keech Studios. On his first trip to Hawaii in 1907, Jack London likened the ‘ukulele to “a young guitar”; thereafter, he mentioned the instrument frequently in his Hawaiian stories and even presaged the impending mainland mania for the ‘ukulele in his novel The Valley of the Moon. In Honolulu, on the last day of his visit, London was feted at a farewell luau with a mele (song) telling of his pilgrimage around the Big Island. “We had assembled our friends for the christening of the Jack London Hula,” Charmian later wrote, “chanted stanza by stanza, each repeated by Ernest Kaai and his perfect Hawaiian singers with their instruments. Each long stanza, carrying an incident of the progress around Hawaii, closed with two lines:

Hainaia mai ana ka puana,
No Keaka Lakana neia inoa.

“This song is then echoed,
’Tis in honor of Jack London.”

* * *

This article was commissioned by Stephen Becker, curator of the exhibit “Evolution of the ‘Ukulele: The Story of Hawaii’s Jumping Flea” which ran from August 2 to October 21, 2007 at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco, CA. It was originally published on the MOCFA website.

© 2007 by John King and Jim Tranqauda.
All images collected, digitized and © 2007 by John King.

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