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1 Introduction Traditions, indeed, are abundant; but traditions are a mass of rubbish, from which it is always difficult to extricate truth. —Rev. Sheldon Dibble, History and General Views of the Sandwich Islands Mission The ukulele is a toy guitar and not worth a second thought. —Hart Stilwell, Esquire, October 1940 When seventy-nine-year-old Manuel Nunes died in July 1922, the brief obituaries of the “inventor of the ‘ukulele” that appeared in Honolulu were quickly picked up by wire services and reprinted in newspapers nationwide. The ubiquity of the ‘ukulele, which had swept the mainland during the previous decade, ensured that news editors in Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia would find space for two or three paragraphs about the elderly musical entrepreneur who had arrived in Hawaii aboard an emigrant ship more than forty years before. While usually a brief item consigned to an inside page and quickly forgotten, the report of Nunes’ death provides a fascinating glimpse of the complex and often conflicted role this diminutive four-stringed guitar has played in popular culture in Hawaii, the United States, and abroad. The story reported as fact the myth that the ‘ukulele was invented in Hawaii, even as it sought to debunk the popular misconception that it was an instrument of Native Hawaiian origin. Headlines in several newspapers emphasized that a white man had invented the ‘ukulele, a reflection not only of an era that witnessed the national rise of the Ku Klux Klan but also of old mainland stereotypes of Hawaiians as ne’er-do-well, childlike savages . This crisis of authenticity also tapped into a widespread dislike of the ‘ukulele as a noisy nuisance, a reaction to its overwhelming, faddish popularity, its adoption by convention-defying youth, and its reputation—assiduously cultivated by music retailers—that it was the instrument anyone could play, a strategy that simultaneously increased sales and undercut its standing as a legitimate musical instrument. Introduction 2 Today, the ‘ukulele is enjoying what is often referred to as a third wave of popularity —the first being the Roaring Twenties, which made Manuel Nunes’ death a news item, and the second coming during the early fifties, when Arthur Godfrey ’s lifelong enthusiasm for the ‘ukulele combined with the power of the new medium of television and the miracle of postwar plastics to sell millions more. Still, for all the ‘ukulele’s new visibility—festivals around the world, concert performances by such artists as Paul McCartney, tens of thousands of YouTube videos , record prices on the collectibles market, and an international surge of media coverage—for most people outside Hawaii it remains, as one headline recently put it, “the Dangerfield of instruments.” According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “The ukulele’s unhipness seems to be one of the pillars on which our modern civilization is built.” In the modern musical cosmos, the Boston Globe asserts, the ‘ukulele “ranks in most people’s minds somewhere between asteroid dust and space junk.” The ‘ukulele has been described as “a tiny four-stringed thingamajig” (Worcester [Mass.] Telegram & Gazette), “a comical little has-been guitar-wannabe” (Los Angeles Times), and “just plain silly” (USA Today). “Hard as it is to believe, there are people who take the ukulele seriously, or at least seriously enough to play it for other people,” Jon Pareles, the pop music critic for the New York Times, wrote not too long ago. For modern audiences (and many journalists), the ‘ukulele conjures up images of Tiny Tim warbling “The Good Ship Lollipop” on Laugh-In, or George Formby singing “Leaning on a Lampost,” and there the story ends. As we hope to demonstrate in this book, there is a far more interesting—and meaningful—story to be told. Since the ‘ukulele’s introduction to Hawaii by Madeiran contract workers in 1879, it has functioned simultaneously on a number of different levels—musical , cultural, economic, and even political. As an instantly recognizable symbol of Hawaii, the ‘ukulele has been many things over the past 130 years: a promise of an island paradise; a tool of political protest; an instrument central to a rich and celebrated musical culture; a musical joke; a symbol of youthful rebellion; a highly sought-after collectible; a cheap airport souvenir; a lucrative industry; an early adapter to new technologies; and the product of a remarkable synthesis of Western and Pacific cultures. These multiple levels parallel what in Hawaii is known as kaona—the ability of the Hawaiian language to simultaneously convey...


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