Hawaii’s Musical “Jumping Flea”
By “Awake” correspondent in Hawaii
A JUMPING flea is something disdainful to both man and beast. But in Hawaii, it takes on a different meaning. It is tied in very closely with the Hawaiian’s natural love for music. Perhaps you have heard of the ukulele. This is Hawaii’s musical “jumping flea”!
This little four-stringed, fretted, guitar-shaped musical instrument is big on tone and sweet in sound. Not only is it beautiful as a solo instrument, particularly with Hawaiian music, but it blends nicely with the regular guitar.
Although dearly loved now by Hawaiians of all ages and walks of life, the ukulele was not always appreciated. It was first ridiculed here as “a hideous Portuguese instrument” and sneered at as a “taro patch fiddle” by so-called respectable people who were used to standard types of musical instruments.
But why the strange name ukulele or “jumping flea”? To understand this name, one must learn first of its origin.
Portuguese sailors and traders first brought this little guitar into Hawaii. Although seen here earlier, it was actually introduced and played publicly the first time by a Portuguese immigrant, Joao Fernandes, in 1879. The ukulele then was called the braginho because the first one had been manufactured in the province of Braga, Portugal. It also was known as cavaquinhos, which means “small piece of wood.”
Origin of Its Unique Name
Fernandes was a real virtuoso. He had entertained fellow passengers on the long voyage from Madeira, Portugal, to Hawaii with the braginho of another traveler who was unable to play it. Originally it was thought that it could be played only with another larger instrument of five strings if there was to be any harmony.
One of the two versions of how the little guitar got its strange name of “jumping flea” centers around this man’s fantastic ability to play it. He could play any song once he heard it, and his nimble, flying fingers plucked the melody and strummed the chords. Quickly the Hawaiian royalty, King Kalakaua, Queen Emma and the future Queen Liliuokalani, commanded performances, and it was no time at all before all Hawaiians were quite taken with this imported musical instrument.
One of the missionary descendants said that when she arrived in Hawaii in 1882, the braginho was just becoming popular with the Hawaiians. Interestingly, she also reported that an adept English musician, Edward Purvis, helped spread the fame of the braginho. He arrived in Hawaii the same year as Joao Fernandes and it was just a matter of time before Purvis mastered the little guitar. He was so popular that he soon was appointed as assistant chamberlain to the court of King Kalakaua.
The second version of how the ukulele got its name centered around Purvis. He was small and quick on his feet. The larger Hawaiians affectionately named him “Ukulele” or “Little thing that jumps,” the Hawaiian term for “flea.” Soon the little guitar that he carried came to be known as the “ukulele.”
Demand for the “Jumping Flea”
It would be difficult to prove which story is the most authentic. Ironically, however, it was in 1910 that the first claim for the “invention” of the ukulele came about. This was 31 years after it had first been played in the islands. As one writer stated: “That’s when the humble little instrument had gained such popularity and was in such demand that it reflected credit on its originators rather than criticism.”
By that time there was such a growing demand for the “uke” that anybody with the skill to manufacture it would find an open market. Hawaii’s first ukulele maker was a furniture manufacturer who scrapped his business to produce ukuleles exclusively. At that time a ukulele sold for about $5 (U.S.).
Three men had the right to claim invention of the ukulele in Hawaii because of their respective contributions to it. However, none of them got rich from making ukuleles. Although prior to 1910 each of them manufactured this instrument, just one claimed to be the inventor, and in that year he was the only active ukulele maker of the original three. His sons also had an aptitude in the ukulele line. By that time, the little instrument was very popular in Hawaii, tourists were buying the “jumping flea” and orders were coming in from the United States. Business boomed as many individuals became “uke” manufacturers to meet the growing demand.
Competition increased as the ukulele craze caught on all over the U.S. mainland. And, as was to be expected, the mainland started mass-producing them and Hawaii began losing money. The mainland companies cashed in on the advertisements long used in Hawaii, linking the ukulele with luaus, moonlit nights and the romance of the islands. When the chairman of the Hawaiian Promotion Committee wrote a note of protest to a music store in San Francisco, California, a nasty letter came back saying that ‘Hawaii shouldn’t complain because Mainland companies were turning out better ukuleles.’ At that time the Honolulu Ad Club patented the ukulele, making it Hawaii’s very own.
During World War I there was a booming business with the ukulele, but by the 1920’s the ukulele craze was dying off. Gradually, Hawaiian “uke” manufacturers gave up, until today only a few remain. These, however, take great pride in their product, often using the most beautifully grained woods and those giving the best resonance and tonal quality to the little instrument. Outstanding is Hawaii’s highly prized koa wood. Interestingly, one manufacturer employs a deaf person to test the resonance vibration of each instrument.
Very little machinery is used in making ukuleles, each one being the work of an artist’s hands. Although there are usually 14 frets for the standard “uke,” one manufacturer also makes an 18-fret instrument for a prominent solo artist. This virtuoso can render anything from hula music to symphony—all solo. And there are several other such talented men. So the little “jumping flea” that originally was dismissed as being worthless as a solo instrument has made its own place in the music world.
Ease in Playing
Because it is so easy to play, many persons who are musically inclined cannot wait to get their hands on a ukulele. One often sees a child heading home from school strumming a “uke,” with his books tucked under his arm. In fact, classes for ukulele instruction are free at many Hawaiian schools. The little guitar is a favorite souvenir carried home by thousands of tourists who visit the Hawaiian Islands each year.
Let me illustrate just how easy it is to learn a few basic chords. First, the “uke” is cradled in the crook of your right arm (unless you are left-handed), with your left thumb on the round surface of the back of the ukulele neck and your palm away from the neck. A felt pick may be used, but most Hawaiians strum with their index finger. For written music, standard guitar chord names are used.
Now, please consider our illustration. The vertical lines represent the strings and the horizontal lines the frets. In written music, the finger numbers are not employed, only the notes. But, so that we can simplify this lesson, we will use numbers. Let’s play something in the key of C. For this key the chords most used are C, G7 and F. This is the way they appear on sheet music (minus the numbers):
In the following example, we will assume that the regular notes are being played on a lead instrument. You will play the accompaniment with the chords indicated above the notes. The diagonal lines show how many times you should strum a certain chord. Now let’s see you perform. (See song below.)
Now, that wasn’t too hard, was it? Of course, it would take some time to master additional keys and chords and to use the ukulele as a solo instrument.
Yes, indeed, that small, “hideous Portuguese instrument” of long ago is now enjoyed around the world and thought of as Hawaiian. In fact, it is spoken of with greatest affection by native Hawaiians as being their ‘very own.’ But you, too, can find delight in Hawaii’s musical “jumping flea.”
[Diagram on page 24]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
[Diagram on page 24]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
On Top Of Old Smoky
C F F F
/ / / / / / / / / / / /
On top of Old Smok — — y — — — — all
F C C C C
/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / /
cov - ered with snow — — — — — — — I lost my true
G7 G7 G7 G7 C C
/ / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / / /
lov — — er — — — — came court - in’ too slow — — — — —