To start with, most of us mainlanders are mispronouncing the word ukulele; there's no "yuh" sound at the beginning and the end isn't "lay-lay." Don't fret; it's an easy mistake. The proper way to pronounce it is OOH-kuh-leh-leh. The beginning of the word sounds like a ghost: ooooh. Try it. Say it out loud. Ooh-kuh-leh-leh. It's fun. Ooh-kuh-leh-leh.
Synonymous with Hawaiian music, the uke (ahem, ook) is one of the most popular instruments around the world. Because of its small size, simplicity (four strings!) and relatively low cost (more on that later), ukuleles have been used for decades to introduce students to the basics of music literacy.
Belonging to the lute family, standard ukuleles are about half the size of a typical acoustic guitar. Like guitars, they're stringed instruments with hollow bodies, a neck with frets, and tuning keys. Ukuleles are available in different sizes: soprano (aka "standard"), concert, tenor and baritone. Less common are the sopranino, or "pocket uke," and a relatively recent creation, the bass ukulele. Each size emits a different tone. The smaller the size, the higher the range.
In 1879, three Portuguese cabinetmakers immigrated to Honolulu and changed music forever. Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias are credited with being the first to make ukes and were noted by the Hawaiian Gazette as "delighting the people with nightly street concerts" shortly after their arrival.
From there, ukuleles struck a chord with people around the world. At the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, George E. K. Awai and his Royal Hawaiian Quartet introduced the instrument to a global audience, eventually becoming an icon of the Jazz Age.
Beginning in the 1940s, companies began mass-producing plastic ukes. Kids loved them. Parents loved them. Even schools loved them. During the Sixties, J. Chalmers Doane introduced the ukulele to the music program of every public school in Canada. At its peak, up to 50,000 students and adults were involved in the program each year. Say it with us: ukulele, eh?
Today, those cheap versions are still available, but most are simply props. But, for as little as $100, you can get yourself a decent, entry-level ukulele starter. As the price of the uke goes up, so does the quality. The majority of the ukuleles made today are crafted from woods like spruce and mahogany. But the best? They're handmade from true Hawaiian Koa, and the superior physical and aural beauty comes with a price tag to match.