The History Of The 'Jumping Flea' and Ukulele Pins

PinProsPlus recently made custom ukulele pins for a ukulele society. And that had us wondering… what’s the history of the ukulele?

Despite what most people believe, the ukulele was not invented in Hawaii. Ukuleles are a modified version of a Portuguese instrument called the machete de braga.  The machete first originated on Madeira, a small island off the coast of Portugal.  In 1879, many men from Madeira made their way to Hawaii as workers for the sugar cane fields.  When they arrived they celebrated by singing folksongs accompanied by the machete.  The instrument made an immediate impression.  As the Hawaiian natives became more and more fascinated with the machete, three woodworkers from Madeira decided to respond to the interest.  They opened their own instrument shops in 1886.  These three men, Miguel Nunes, Augusto Dias, and Jose do Espirito Santo, are credited with inventing the Hawaiian version of the machete: the ukulele.

After the new instrument’s creation it was renamed the ukulele, which is a Hawaiian word that means ‘jumping flea’. The instrument was named such because of the way the musician’s fingers would fly over the strings, looking very similar to a jumping bug.  You may also hear ukulele interpreted as “gift from a distance”.  This is thanks to the Hawaiian queen Lili’uokalani.   Lili’uokalani’s translation of the word referenced the journey of the Madeira men and instruments from Portugal to Hawaii’s shores.

Although the ukulele became prominent in Hawaii in the 1800s, it wasn’t until 1915 that it spread to other locations. During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, the Hawaiian Pavillion featured a guitar and ukulele ensemble, George E. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet.  Due to the popularity of the ensemble, Hawaiian-themed songs became a fad and the ukulele was introduced into mainland popular music.

Today people view ukuleles as the instrument of Hawaii. Many artists continue to use the ukulele in popular music, such as musicians Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Jake Shimabukuro, and there are ukulele societies and classes throughout the world.  PinProsPlus can help you design ukulele pins for your society, or for you to have simply as an honor to the instrument.  Ukulele pins are a unique way to remember the history of the ‘jumping flea’.