The Gift to Come

The History of The Hawaiian Ukuele

“Ukuele” translates to become the phrase “The gift to come.” This four-stringed, tiny guitar has become as synonymous with the sound of the Hawaiian Islands as the crashing of the ocean waves along the shore. It is a little-known fact that ukulele’s did not originate in Hawaii. The Portuguese machete as it was called, was brought to the Pacific by immigrants from islands on the other side of the world: Madeira and Azores. It was Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, a musician and patron of the arts that insisted the name was developed as a hybrid of the words “uku” (gift) and “lele” (to come). While others believe the name came from the Hawaiian word for ‘jumping flea’ because of the way that the musician’s hands move along the frets, there is no argument as to how this instrument landed on the shores of The Aloha State.
In the mid-1800s, the islands off the coast of Portugal, once booming European tourist destinations, were wracked with famine, disease, and wide-spread unemployment. With the developing sugarcane industry in the Pacific, many were making the arduous journey by ship to the other side of the world to begin life anew. Among these immigrants were three woodworkers from Funchal, Madeira’s capital city. Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose Do Espirito Santo landed in Oahu in August of 1879 aboard the SS Ravenscrag. As the legend goes, an immigrant aboard that ship was a musician named Joao Fernandez, who borrowed the machete of another passenger to begin a performance in celebration of their safe arrival.
After three years of working in the fields, Nunes, Dias, and Espirito Santo found themselves in Honolulu, which at the time had a flourishing furniture industry. All three established themselves in the wood-working trade, and within a year each had their own respective shops, advertising the construction of “guitars, machetes, and stringed instruments,” or “guitars of all sizes.” Ukes adopted the spirit of the island in the Koa wood that was used to manufacture the instruments. While no one is quite sure who made the first true Ukulele, by the turn of the century the term became widely used by visitors to the Hawaiian Islands and by Hawaiian royalty.
David Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king, his Queen Emma, as well as the last queen Lili’uokalani were all accomplished musicians and patrons of the arts. Often times special diplomatic occasions were marked by a Uke performance from a local musician or by the Royals themselves. The support from the Hawaiian aristocracy brought the instrument to The Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and the rest is history. The ukulele became a popular instrument from the Pacific Coast to Tin Pan Alley, even making an appearance in America’s newest favorite medium- silent films: its first starring role was in the movie Stringed Harmony (1923).
In the US the ukulele became very popular throughout the Jazz age, and in country and rock music throughout the 1960s. It fell into a sort of obscurity until the 1990s when Israel Kamakawiwo'ole’s 1993 mash-up of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," and the uke experienced a renaissance that continues to thrive twenty-five years later.
Outside at the Rusty Nail the sounds of live music pour out of the instruments of Cape May’s favorite musicians, wafting above Beach Avenue on the waves of the salty late-afternoon air. The Aloha spirit is evident at the Beach Shack and Rusty Nail, especially after this winter’s renovations. At the Beach Shack, the rooms reflect the cool blue of the ocean, with touches of pineapples in the carpet and lighting fixtures; a symbol of a welcome home to each guest who will stay at the Shack now through December. The Nail still has the same great outdoor bar, sand and fire pit, with a few new touches that will keep the tiki torches burning through the end of the year. A welcoming indoor fireplace is the perfect spot to grab a drink when the temperatures start to dip.
The ukulele was a direct result of the marriage of two cultures to make a new, distinct kind of music. As Hawaii experienced significant changes, the sound of the ukulele was able to create a kind of sound that captured the past, present, and future of the islands. This summer, the Beach Shack and Rusty Nail have that Island vibe, while staying true to everything that visitors have always loved: a place to gather with family and friends to spend time together in Cape May. ✯