HONOLULU (AP) — Its frisky four strings are the sound of Elvis’s “Blue Hawaii,” of Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips and lately, beyond all reason, of a popular “Bohemian Rhapsody” cover.
Above all, the humble ukulele — dubbed “the underdog of all instruments” by virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro who busted out his rendition of the aforementioned Queen classic in a recent performance — sounds like Hawaii.
Lawmakers here are considering a bill that would dub the ukulele the official state instrument, a designation that seems in some ways like a formal ceremony for a common-law marriage.
“Denying this bill would be like denying a significant part of who we are,” Ani Martirosian Menon, a Honolulu resident by way of Los Angeles, told a House committee hearing Wednesday.
She credited the instrument with helping her, and anyone else who has ever come to Hawaii, to understand the islands. “It’s a sincere melting pot,” she said. “If you’ve never been here before, you’re not going to know how to adjust. The ukulele is a really good entry point to connect with the local culture.”
Bette Midler belting out “Ukulele Lady” on national television, backed by a ukulele choir, helped bring the instrument’s sound to the masses. But the ukulele can seem ubiquitous on the islands themselves. Visitors hear ukuleles at Hawaiian airports. Callers to state government offices hear it paired with a soothing steel guitar as hold music — perhaps aimed at calming irate constituents.
A few states have designated state instruments, but none is so synonymous as the ukulele to Hawaii. Texas called dibs on the guitar. Louisiana put zydeco ahead of jazz in honoring the accordion. Missouri claimed to the fiddle. But so did Arkansas. And Oklahoma. And South Dakota.
The ukulele and Hawaii are a more distinct pairing. They’re so intertwined that when Jim Tranquada, co-author with Jim King of “The Ukulele: A History,” was told of the bill, his response was surprise — not that Hawaii was so honoring the ukulele, but that the state hadn’t already.
“The ukulele has been widely regarded as an indigenous Hawaiian instrument since the late 1880s,” Tranquada said. “As a visual icon the ukulele is instantly associated with Hawaii, which is why it’s used so frequently in advertising.”
Here, according to Tranquada, is how that came to be. Guitar-like stringed instruments were already popular in Hawaii about 130 years ago when plantation owners imported workers from Portugal. The Portuguese (Tranquada’s great-great grandfather among them) brought a little four-stringed instrument called a machete. When they started making similar instruments out of an indigenous acacia tree called the koa, it became a distinctly Hawaiian creation.
Pretty soon the Hawaiian royal family became fans of ukulele music. Princess Kaiulani took it up. And as Hawaii grappled with American annexation, it became a point of pride to strum this plucky little instrument made of wood found only in Hawaii.
“If you were playing a ukulele made of koa, you were demonstrating aloha aina, or love of the land,” Tranquada said. “It was a patriotic act.”
Today the oldest continuous maker of ukuleles is Kamaka Ukulele, which has been in business since 1916. In a shed behind its Honolulu manufacturing shop sits a heap of koa logs, which spend years drying before Chris Kamaka, a third-generation ukulele maker, brings them inside to shape.
“It’s a beautiful wood, and it’s a hard wood,” he said Wednesday, standing in the sawdust-scented work floor. They could heat it to speed up the drying process, but they’d rather let the wood wait. It takes about a year per inch of thickness to dry. “We’ve always done it that way,” Kamaka said. “It seems to work well.”
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