1 The Ukulele Back in the Day
The ukulele is based on two Portuguese stringed instruments imported to Hawaii by Madeira and Cape Verde immigrants around 1879; the "cavaquinho" and the "rajao" are two small guitarshaped instruments with 4 and 5 or 6 strings respectively. Portuguese immigrant cabinet makers Joao Fernandes, Manuel Nunes and Augusto Dias were all instrument makers as a side job, crafting versions of their Portuguese instruments and opening shops to sell their musical goods to the Hawaiian community. Nunes, who claimed himself as the ukelele's inventor, eventually had an ukulele production factory in Hawaii and had Sam Kamaka (later founder of Kamaka Hawaii Inc.) as his apprentice.
2 Present Day
Although today we simply call it the Uke, many theories are behind the name's origin, being two of them "jumping flea" (due to the finger work speed that Madeiran players used on their instruments) and "the gift that came here"(from the words "uku" and "lele" meaning "gift" and "to come" respectively). Hawaiian King Kalakaua helped the ukulele gain its popularity and crystallize into Hawaiian popular culture by adopting it in royal events and gatherings. Within ten years it became Hawaii's most popular instrument, being thus totally assimilated by the culture. The ukulele made its way into the United States in 1915 in the occasion of the Panama Pacific International Exposition which featured a Hawaiian Pavilion. Here, George E. K. Awai and the Royal Hawaiian Quartet were well accepted by the Americans, which adopted not only the ukelele but the lap steel guitar into the vaudeville scene. Ukulele playing was then displayed at films and thus spread across the country. The relevance of the instrument in the US during the 20s is confirmed by the publishing of various ukulele tablatures and popular music sheets. C. F. Martin & Co. was manufactured them in Hawaiian koa wood and produced concert-scale models, having sold 14,000 units in 1926 alone. By 1931, Harmony (owned by Sears Roebuck) sold 500,000 units. After WWII, the instrument continued to be present in the jazz scene and often broadcast on TV shows. American singer Herbert Khaury, best known as Tiny Tim, had a big popularity boost when he made his rendition of Al Dubin and Joe Burk's "Tiptoe Through the Tulips", accompanying his falsetto voice with an ukulele.
2 Celebrity Uke Fans
After the 60s, the ukulele became unpopular, having Kamaka as its only manufacturer by the early 70s. Nevertheless, Paul McCartney (The Beatles) and his wife Linda McCartney released the album"Ram" which featured a song with ukelele playing titled Ram On. Only decades later, in the '90s, did the ukulele have a strong comeback. Ukelele fans connected by the new communication technologies blossomed into a subculture fueled by artists such as Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (famous for his "Over the Rainbow" medley in 1993) and Jame Shimabukuro (who became extremely popular in Hawaii around 1998). It's interesting to notice that the ukulele's evolution through the twentieth century spawned several variations and hybrids. Some of them include the banjo ukelele, the guitalele and the harp ukulele, which are nowadays widely produced and distributed by several companies. Eddie Veder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, has released a solo album of entirely ukele songs. Needless to say, the instrument has found a spot in modern culture.