The sound of ukuleles wafting on a light tropical breeze may seem like a movie cliché, but it really is a beloved musical instrument in Hawaii. As I walked across campus this morning, I happened upon a group of students gathered to play ukuleles together at 8 am! One of the guys in my Latin class often walks into class strumming the ukulele, providing us with a serenade snippet before the work of translation gets underway.

Even younger school children are also learning to play the ukulele, some recipients of free instruments from the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii. The guild’s annual conference next weekend will feature free exhibits of custom made instruments and open mic ukulele performances. Seminars are available for a fee.

An annual Ukulele Festival is held at the Kapiolani Park Bandstand in Waikiki – next year it will be Sunday, July 18, 2010. Organizers say it is the largest gathering of its kind in the world. A free two-hour concert features local entertainers, national celebrities and a ukulele orchestra of more than 800 students, mostly children.

As with the guitar, the instrument that inspired ukuleles originally came to Hawaii in the hands of visitors. Portuguese field workers brought musical instruments along when they arrived in the late 1800’s. According to legend, the smaller cousin was given a name that means “jumping flea” from the swift finger movements of the players.

Once on the islands, the ukulele developed a local sound that is proving remarkably adaptable. Ukuleles have been used in many different kinds of music featured in films, television programs and commercials. It is as versatile as the inpidual performer, played by young and old, in traditional island music, jazz or indie pop. While Hawaii is happy to share its love of the instrument, we do have one request. Please pronounce it oo-kuh-ley-ley (at least while you’re here on your Hawaii vacation).


  1. My first teacher, a guy from Honolulu, says that it’s OK to say YOU-koo-lele. He says it’s not a Hawaiian work, YOOke, it’s rather the “Americanized” pronunciation of the Hawaiian version, OOk. I feel like a pretentious dork when I say OOk, but when I play, I feel HAPPY and I suppose that’s all that matters, really.


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