Impact of the Ukulele on Hawaiian and American Culture

Royal Patronage Led to Popularization of Ukulele

The rapid acceptance of the ukulele was due to the patronage of King Kalakaua and his brother Prince Leleiohoku, and sisters Princess Likelike and the future Queen Lili’uokalani.  They were all musicians and composers and all played the ukulele.  The family's Iolani Palace was the center of Hawaiian dance, music, and culture.  It was King Kalakaua who added the lilting rhythm of the ukulele to the hula.  It became his favorite instrument and at his Jubilee celebration in 1886, the ukulele accompanied the dances for the first time.

Year:  1879

Augusto Dias, who was a great musician in addition to having helped create the original ukulele, became the king’s favorite court musician.  He is credited with teaching the king to play the ukulele and inserted Portuguese melodies into music for the hulas.  The popularity spread to the Hawaiian people as it was relatively easy to learn and was relatively inexpensive.

In 1915, the Hawaiian Legislature funded the building of a “Hawaiian Pavilion” for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The Pavilion offered serenades featuring Hawaiian dancing (hulas) and the singing of Hawaiian songs.  The seventeen million people who attended the Exposition that played for 222 days were thrilled by the Hawaiian music that featured the ukulele.  Thus began an interest in the ukulele and its popularization in music and movies in the 1920s and 1930s. It became an icon of the Jazz Age and was popular with amateur players.

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, plastics manufacturer Mario Maccaferri turned out about 9 million inexpensive ukuleles. The ukulele continued to be popular, appearing on many jazz songs throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.  Much of the instrument's popularity was cultivated on the Arthur Godfrey Show on television.  Singer-musician Tiny Tim became closely associated with the instrument after playing it on his 1968 hit "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."

After the 1960s, the ukulele declined in popularity until the late 1990s, when interest in the instrument was rekindled.  During the 1990s, new manufacturers began producing ukuleles and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument. Jim Beloff set out to promote the instrument in the early 1990s and created over two dozen ukulele music books featuring modern music as well as classic ukulele pieces.

All-time best selling Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole helped re-popularize the instrument with his 1993 reggae-rhythmed medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," used in films, television programs, and commercials. The song reached number 12 on Billboard's Hot Digital Tracks chart in 2004.

The creation of YouTube was a big influence on the popularity of the ukulele. One of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on YouTube. The video quickly went viral, and as of December 2016, had received over 15 million views.

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