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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 22, 2004

Strum 'Happy Birthday' in honor of the 'ukulele

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

The story of the 'ukulele, as Leslie Nunes heard it, starts like this:

Leslie Nunes displays his 1910 double-string 'ukulele and a photo of his great-grandfather, Manuel Nunes, who created the earliest 'ukulele by adapting the Portuguese braguinha.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Thousands of miles from their homes in Madeira, 419 Portuguese immigrants disembarked from the Ravenscrag 125 years ago at Honolulu Harbor — and celebrated with music.

"After a four-month journey from Portugal, they were so happy to stand on land, they pulled out instruments and began to play and sing," said the 68-year-old Kailua resident, whose great-grandfather, Manuel Nunes, was among those revelers.

Of course, the instrument was the braguinha. That miniature four-stringed guitar almost immediately became the model for the first 'ukulele, destined to become inextricably linked with Island culture.

The anniversary — the Ravenscrag arrived Aug. 23, 1879 — is being celebrated tomorrow in a free 'ukulele concert. It was produced by Leslie Nunes, who is a lifelong collector and scholar specializing in the instrument.

"I just wanted to honor the 'ukulele," Nunes said. "I couldn't let this anniversary go by."

His forebear was one of three aboard ship whose names turn up in 'ukulele chronicles: Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo were also craftsmen who helped to develop and manufacture the first true 'ukuleles.

Nunes said his great-grandfather was a cabinetmaker in Madeira as well as a luthier, a craftsman who specialized in stringed instruments. So when he immigrated to Hawai'i, it wasn't long before he went back into business, recognizing the potential of the native woods, especially the radiant qualities of koa.

Kou was also used in the early days, Nunes said, although it was harder to work and therefore receded in popularity behind koa.

Nunes lovingly unpacked an 'ukulele that his great-grandfather had made in 1910. The wavy figuring of the wood, known as "curly koa," gleamed. Back in 1910, he said, such an instrument sold for $5 — at the time, nearly a month's wages.

This is just one of about 200 vintage instruments that Nunes keeps "in storage" (he won't say where), in the hopes that someday they could be displayed in a permanent museum.

The oldest instrument in the collection: a braguinha handed down by his great-grandfather, circa 1820. All of them, he said, are carefully insulated from the elements, their strings protectively slacked to reduce stress on the instruments' joints.

Nunes learned what he knows partly from his grandfather, who passed on childhood memories of romping on the 'Iolani Palace grounds while Manuel Nunes sold instruments inside to Queen Lili'uokalani.

'Uku plenny ukes

The 125th Anniversary of the 'Ukulele

7 p.m tomorrow

Mission Memorial Auditorium, between Honolulu Hale and Sky Gate

Featuring: Aunty Genoa Keawe, Roy Sakuma's Super Keikis,

Mel Murata's Keiki Palaka Band, Gordon Mark, Alfredo Canopin, Fred Fallin, Ian Masterson with Ricky Bermudez and Portuguese fado singer Josephine Correra.

Free; seating in the 350-person auditorium begins at 6 p.m., on a first-come, first-served basis.

He also did a lot of research, making several trips to Portugal, in the process of publishing a book for the 'ukulele centennial. He co-wrote "The Ukulele: A Portuguese Gift to Hawai'i" with John Henry Felix and Peter F. Senecal, and now is planning a new volume to commemorate the 125th anniversary.

Stories abound about how the 'ukulele got its Hawaiian name — which translates into "jumping flea." In schoolroom visits, Nunes would suggest to children that the Hawaiians named it that because the Portuguese musicians, viewed from the back, seemed to be scratching themselves.

Nunes has heard stories about a musician with the moniker 'Ukulele being the origin of the instrument's name, but he shook his head. He knows the real story, he said, but he's not talking — yet. "It'll be in my next book," Nunes said with a grin.

However it was named, he said, the 'ukulele quickly captivated the Hawaiians. The familiar tuning, a tradition imported from Portugal, seemed to give the instrument a tonality that worked well with Hawaiian melodies, Nunes said.

"That's what made the 'ukulele popular: the tuning," he added. "It spoke to Hawaiians. It matched their meles and matched their hula."

For the past several years, the 'ukulele has enjoyed one of its periodic surges in popularity, he said, fueled in part by musicians with particular gifts — the warmth of the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole and the flash of virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.

Enrollments in classes continue at a healthy pace, Nunes said.

Some of the young who've caught the bug — Roy Sakuma's Super Keikis and Murata's Keiki Palaka Band — will be featured tomorrow.

Shimabukuro, 27, remembers his own love affair with the 'ukulele, starting at age 4.

"My mom played," he said. "For me, it always kept me out of trouble.

"I think the most wonderful thing is it's such a humble instrument. It's not intimidating to pick up."

Known for his machine-gun virtuosity, he said: "It's not about technique. The most important thing is you enjoy it. ... It kind of grabs you and brings a smile to your face."

Reach Vicki Viotti at vviotti@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8053.