Ukuleles are commonly associated with music from Hawaii where the name roughly translates as “jumping flea,” perhaps due to the action of one’s fingers playing the ukulele resembling a “jumping flea.” According to Queen Lili’uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here,” from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). Developed in the 1880’s, the ukulele is based on two small guitar-like instruments of Portuguese origin, the cavaquinho and the rajão, introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde. Three immigrants in particular, Madeiran cabinet makers Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are generally credited as the first ukulele makers. Two weeks after they landed aboard the Ravenscrag in late August 1879, the Hawaiian Gazette reported that “Madeira Islanders recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts.”
One of the most important factors in establishing the ukulele in Hawaiian music and culture was the ardent support and promotion of the instrument by King David Kalakaua. A patron of the arts, he incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.