Ukulele Boom Generates Global Sales for Hawaii Companies

Some local companies turn to Asian manufacturers to meet demand

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A Brief Global History of a Small Hawaiian Instrument

Photo: David Croxford

More than 400 Portuguese men arrived in Honolulu aboard the ship Ravencrag and at least one brought a popular folk instrument called the machete. It was quickly adopted by Hawaiians, who renamed it the ukulele or “jumping flea,” possibly because of the way it was played with flying fingers.

The Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, where the Hawaii pavilion was a hit, spurred national popularity of the ukulele. By the 1920s, no self-respecting college kid would be seen without one. Tin Pan Alley began churning out Hawaiian and hapa-haole songs and respected national guitar makers began making ukulele. Sheet music of the era’s most popular songs were printed with easy-to-play ukulele tablature.

Arthur Godfrey, who was fond of Hawaii, played the ukulele on his popular TV show.

The nationwide popularity of the ukelele was in decline, as everyone wanted to be a guitar hero. Gimmick entertainer Tiny Tim used the ukulele, adding to its uncool reputation.

The ukulele never went out of fashion in Hawaii. Maestro Roy Sakuma started his Ukulele Festival in 1971 and it’s still going strong.

Hawaiian music enjoyed a renaissance, with popular groups such as Sunday Manoa and the Makaha Sons of Niihau featuring the ukulele.

As it regained national and global popularity, the ukulele showed up in unexpected places. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, founded in 1985, met with critical and popular acclaim. Around the same time, former Beatle George Harrison, a part-time Hawaii resident, began playing the ukulele almost to the exclusion of his guitar and other instruments.

With the new millennium, a wave of virtuoso players emerged, including local musician Jake Shimabukuro. Other popular artists are including the ukulele in their recordings and performances, and legions of amateurs are following along, playing this happy instrument in their homes, in informal ukulele clubs and bringing it wherever they go.

Sources: Lanikai Ukulele website, "Hawaiian Music and Musicians" by George Kanahele

U.S. Sales of Fretted Instruments, 2010

Sales totaled 2.38 million units, $839 million retail

Source: National Association of Music Merchants 2011 Global Report

Photo: David Croxford


Clubs All Over

Peter Thomas had no trouble launching an ukulele club in Santa Cruz, Calif. Originally, aficionados would meet in his living room, but the gatherings quickly outgrew his home.

Now, the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz – one of the mainland’s largest – meets regularly at restaurants, drawing up to 200 strumming players at a time. The club has spawned a number of knock-off groups and regularly responds to requests for information and advice from fans around the world.

Thomas says that, once people get hooked, they begin buying ukulele for various styles and themes. Some people are even making their own.

“Music you play by yourself is happiness,” he says.

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