The ukulele, although a favourite emblem of Hawaiian culture, originated in Portugal as an instrument called the braguinha or machete de braga. It was introduced to the Hawaii by a traveller in 1879, and the Hawaiians quickly adopted the instrument as their own, modifying its tuning and re-christening it ukulele (uku meaning 'flea' and lele 'to dance').
In 1915 the ukulele was given its formal introduction to the world at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco (which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal). The Hawaiian music presented to the Exposition's 17,000,000 visitors was so successful a feature that a craze for the 'uke' spread quickly across the USA and it became a hugely fashionable item. Since this remarkable surge of interest in the instrument coincided with the dawning of the jazz era, the ukulele became the favourite choice of accompaniment for singers of popular ballads and comic songs throughout the twenties and thirties on both sides of the Atlantic.
Shortly after ukulele mania hit America a sister instrument, the ukulele-banjo, was invented. Tuned like a traditional uke, but with the body of a banjo, this was a more powerful instrument, with a strident tone. George Formby jnr, an English comedian who began building his career in the twenties, took up this instrument and made it world-famous. Even now, forty years after his death, it is with Formby's name that the ukulele and ukulele-banjo are most closely associated in Britain and many other countries.
As rock & roll took hold in the mid-fifties, the ukulele began gradually to lose popularity. However, its influence on the music scene remains, and over recent decades there have been resurgences of interest. There are many passionate ukulele enthusiasts today who know that ukulele mania is just waiting to break out all over again!
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