The history of the ukulele in Polynesia: from Portugal to Tahiti

Origines du ukulele
The ukulele is a tiny guitar native to Madeira Island, an overseas territory of Portugal. Emblematic of Hawaii, it is an essential instrument to animate local Tahitian parties as well as the ori tahiti dance shows! But do you really know the story of this beautiful and exotic musical instrument? "Ua reva" as they say in Tahiti: let's go to discover more fully the origins of the famous ukulele!

How was the ukulele born?

Our story begins in August 1879 when a Portuguese ship named "Ravenscrag" arrived in Hawaii to cultivate sugar cane and pineapples. On board are workers and migrants from Madeira Island, Portuguese overseas territory, from where they easily took their little four-string guitar: a cavaquinho, also called braguinha. The latter would be derived from a small Spanish guitar and there are different variations, including the one performed in Madeira and transported to Honolulu. Craftsmen skilled in woodworking were also on the ship, which allowed the Hawaiians to quickly appropriate it and make it in turn, following the specific tuning of the Hawaiian guitar. The people of Hawaii fell in love with this instrument, until the king who designated the ukulele as the iconic instrument of the island.

The instrument then takes the nickname "ukulele", which actually means "the jumping chip". This expression is used to refer to the fingers of the hand which press quickly on the strings, which is reminiscent of the leaping of the insect. Its use then spread to all the islands of the Pacific, to Tahiti and then throughout the world. The Hawaiian ukulele is present in Tahiti under the name of the most famous brand in the Pacific, ie "kamaka". Originally, ukuleles were made from koa wood, a variety of Hawaiian acacia. This wood is still very common in Hawaii, unlike other countries which use the same woods as those for guitars. Plastic ukuleles have even seen the light of day in the United States. Strings have also evolved over time, from metallic to nylon. As for those of the Tahitian ukulele, they are mostly made of fishing line. This ukulele model does not have a sound box and is carved from a single wood. Possessing eight strings instead of four, it differs from its Hawaiian brother by a higher sound and it scratches with great liveliness. Even if its origin is more recent than the Hawaiian ukulele, it is very popular in French Polynesia and is present in all the archipelagos. It is also found in the Cook Islands and Samoa and on Easter Island!

The ukulele in Tahiti: a flagship cultural instrument!

The ukulele in Tahiti, whether Hawaiian or Tahitian, is used at all events to set the mood and bring good humor. Indispensable to local festivals, it punctuates Polynesian days from morning to night. He is so much a part of local life and culture that a festival in his name was created in 2015 for the first time. The challenge was to beat the ukulele world record then held by England, and the Polynesians answered the call! Nearly 5,000 people gathered in Toa'ta Square, all playing and singing in unison dressed in colors and floral wreaths, inscribing Polynesia in the book of records: the Guinness World Records.

Three years later, the festival is renewed to try to reclaim its title, dethroned by Hong Kong last year. But the 6,302 Polynesians were not enough to break the record of more than 8,000 players. Despite the disappointment, it is above all for the fun and culture of the ukulele that all these people have come together. The ukulele, even if it originates from Portugal, then from Hawaii, has completely appropriated the image of Polynesia, including Tahiti, where it is an integral part of the decor. It is learned from kindergarten for the little ones and continues to be learned by the older ones.