The Ukulele and the Hawaiian Assumption | GOT A UKULELE - Ukulele reviews and beginners tips

17 Apr 2016

The Ukulele and the Hawaiian Assumption

Going out on a limb on this rant, but then I have never shied away from the more difficult ukulele discussions (and nor do I think it is healthy for other people to do that). But I realised that I hadn't actually talked about this issue before. What is it with the assumption that we all need to prostrate ourselves to Hawaii if we play the ukulele? (Bear with me here - do read on before immediately jumping for the email button..)

Hawaii Lei

I've been prompted to write this based on a couple of recent heated debates (and comments left on this very blog) that, to be honest, left me a little irritated. They were comments that essentially tried to guilt me (and others) by suggesting that I was NOT showing any reverence or respect to Hawaii, because I didn't feel the need to dress like one or speak like one. It's quite absurd. A suggestion of an automatic contract that you have to sign up to when you start playing uke. Surely that can't be right can it? I'm not from Hawaii - I was born in the rainy north west of the UK... Surely you can acknowledge the origins without being full on Maui about it?

Let's deal with some basics first. Of course, the ukulele is most commonly associated with Hawaii. That much is obvious because it was Hawaii that appropriated the instrument from the Europeans (possibly Portuguese, possibly Madeiran, possibly the Azores depending on which of many varying stories you believe) and gave it that name - a Hawaiian word. But note - 'appropriated'. The instrument already existed as a box with strings. So it was really only the taking up of the instrument and naming it 'Ukulele' which is the Hawaiian bit. And that was back in 1880's - there has been an awful lot of ukulele playing around the globe since then.

But fair enough - the ukulele IS most commonly tied to an origin in Hawaii. The instrument is revered over there and is intrinsically linked to establishing Hawaiian culture. It was promoted by the King and used in ceremonial royal events. The instrument is incredibly important to that society.

And I acknowledge that. Totally. But it really isn't being disrespectful if I choose to play one without taking up Hawaiian acoutrements to go with it. You see, I don't think that's how respect works.

Personally, I have more time for quiet and serious respect for any 'thing' rather than going the full on gaudy about it.

Take a cheap Chinese ukulele brand churning out terrible instruments that most Hawaiians would cringe at, made by cheap labour and in poor working conditions, but labelling their website and their boxes with Hawaiian flowers and pictures of surf boards. Is that respect? It isn't. It's just lowest common denominator marketing spin.

Is being a bloke or a lady from ukulele club being respectful by wearing an ill fitting Hawaiian shirt that was made in China together with some plastic flowers around his neck respectful? Perhaps, to some degree, but I suspect it's more about having a bit of fun with friends.

How about a brand of toilet paper / cars / anything using some ukulele music in their adverts to sell more product and choosing a Hawaiian style sound. Is that respect? No, just capitalist marketing again.

It's everywhere. The branding, the outfits, the song choices. And let's be clear - if you want to dress like that or you want to play a ukulele decorated in flowers then that is absolutely YOUR choice. But that is not the point. Doing so does not make you any more reverential to the origins of the ukulele than someone who doesn't.

Being disrespectful to Hawaii about the ukulele would be trying to re-write history to remove the connection of the instrument from the Islands, or have it re-named. That isn't actually as absurd as it sounds as when the islands were originally annexed by the US, what followed was a period where traditional Hawaiian culture and language WERE sidelined / not taught, and rather forcefully at that. But it's 2016. That really isn't the case in the modern world any longer and I think the chances of the ukulele losing it's connection to Hawaii would be slim to nil. In fact, the very fact that so many of us are playing the damn thing and the fact that I truly have never met anyone who didn't know it originated in Hawaii... well, I'd say that the respect to Hawaii is alive and well myself. Should we forget that history? Of course not, but I just don't think approaching the whole respect thing as some sort of weird cosplay event isn't my kind of respect.

Of course, celebrating culture and keeping traditions alive is important. I regularly attend UK folk festivals for (partly) the same reason. Those events thrive and in part are keeping alive very earliest British folk music traditions. It's the same thing and the events keep it alive.  But I dont dress like a Morris Dancer on any day of the week. It doesn't mean that I don't respect the history though.  Hey, I really respect the guitar too, but I don't speak with a Spanish accent or dress like Paco de Lucia.

And as the instrument continues to grow in popularity that in turn has allowed many Hawaiian names to go on to great success on the music circuits GLOBALLY. I've featured a few on this site. When arguably the most famous player of the instrument today is Jake Shimabukuro, a Hawaiian, it seems clear to me that the roots of the instrument are hardly being forgotten, regardless of how I pronounce it or what shirt I wear. The popularity of the instrument itself IS growing the pool of respect for the culture. How can it not?

Hawaii is clearly a very beautiful place (I have never been). It's also a place that automatically conjures images to me of happy people and a rich cultural heritage. This bloke from the rainy UK automatically thinks that and I believe most other people do to. I think I always have. In my mind Hawaiian culture is a wonderful thing and I would sorely like to visit. That automatic link with the ukulele and Hawaii is ingrained in all of us I think.

So, please don't tell me I am not showing enough respect because I don't choose to go with the faux adoration. Don't tell me that having spent years writing a ukulele site that specifically aims to encourage people to play the thing that I am not doing enough for the support of this instrument. And don't assume you know what I do and don't respect based on how I dress and speak.

You can read my many other rants on various topics surrounding the odd world of the ukulele on this link.


  1. I totally agree, you're not courting controversy as far as I'm concerned ....what about celebrating the instrument's Portuguese origins ? (perhaps we should celebrate our chosen instrument with a schooner of sherry ?)

  2. A fair few of these "respect Hawaii" people are also the ones who adorn everything with gross, sexualised depictions of Hawaiian women and sing songs like Ukulele Lady. I think if you want to show respect actually considering the people is a better way to go than dressing the part.

  3. Ha ha - and a plate of grilled sardines...

    It's odd this blog at times. I have had people say I court controversy - that really isn't the point - I just read a lot about the ukulele and write what I feel with the intention of making people think rather than just being sheep and following the received wisdom. Then again, I've been accused of 'courting controversy' by 'deliberately reviewing ukes badly' too, so I can't win!

  4. Very disappointed that you don't wear Morris garb at least one day a week, Barry. Perhaps you'll commit to waving a hanky around now and then, just to keep up appearances?

  5. I'll keep a balloon on a stick in the car...

  6. I think the best way to "show reverence" to the Hawaiian culture in regard to the ukulele is to promote this wonderful instrument so that more people will play it and share it's music and the spirit of corporate music making and enjoying the company of others that it invokes. And I think that sites like yours do just that. Personally, I enjoy wearing Hawaiian shirts because they're bright and colorful, but I have been wearing them for years (way before I started playing the ukulele). One has nothing to do with the other. Even Hawaiians wear other clothes and play other genres of music. Whoever says that a person doesn't "revere" Hawaii just because of what they wear is just plain narrow-minded.

  7. I recently saw this video on 'cultural appropriation' and tattoos; of course, it got me thinking on this very subject and I was inwardly planning out a post for my blog. Thank you for beating me to it. Now I can let you take the heat. :-)

    Seriously though, the ukulele was appropriated or adopted if you prefer. Although it seems the 'jumping flee' translation gets all the press, Queen Liliuokalani prefered the translation of 'the gift that came,' offering up a respect to the origin of the instrument. If one is grateful for the ukulele, as I am, I think it is more than enough to acknowledge that this is a gift that came to us.

  8. Oh bugger !!! cheap Hawaiian shirt anyone ? never worn - honest

  9. Not sure why you'd make a big hoo-ha about something that you seem to wish would be water under the bridge. I can't think of a single person I know here (in Hawai'i) who would rather you wear Hawaiian shirts and plastic lei to "honor the instrument." That's not honor. That's tacky.

    Just FYI, Jake is Japanese, born in Hawai'i. Only the indigenous kanaka maoli are "Hawaiian."

  10. Not me making a 'hoo har' , more just a post about what I see in the social ukulele channels. A reflection on that really. (Although I did genuinely get emails recently claiming I hated Hawaiians so relevant for that reason as well!)

    Knowing a few Hawaiians I agree with your comment about the tacky - actually do think that those who get angry about this are not actually Hawaiian - rather just people who like to say 'mahalo' and 'aloha' to each other without having knowing why..

  11. (But the whole rant section of this site is always being accused of that - the 'why mention it if you want it to go away' thing. It's a blog. I only do the rant posts in the hope that some people do actually come away a little wiser. Last year I had some nasty comments from someone who claimed my website name was 'wrong' gramatically')

  12. Personally I really couldn't give a monkeys handbag what the origins of the uke or any other instrument is, I just love playing it in whatever style and whatever way I feel suits the particular song I am singing. Yes, I am interested in tge history of music and therefor what type of instrument a particular genre is played on, but first and formost it is simply a way of making music and self expression, and long may it live! ��

  13. I totally agree actually - As Barry 'the guy who happens to play the ukulele' - totally agree - 99% of my rants are stuff that just doesn't really matter. But as Barry 'the website author' I try to use the site for Op Ed pieces as a bellweather for what is going on in the ukulele world at large. And this is something I see as prevalent. It's totally nuts of course!

  14. Loved the rant, as always, even picked up a new word (cosplay).
    I don't like Hawaiian shirts, does that make me a bad person?

  15. Really, it's lovely to have any excuse to wear a baggy cotton shirt!!!!

  16. Yep. We live in a world where everybody gets their feelings hurt over petty things. If people don't like what this blog has to say, THEN DON'T READ IT... sheesh. The Ukulele represents a culture to some, fine music to others, and even "toy instruments" to a few ignorant. Enjoy it for what it means to you, but dont expect everybody else to jump on your train.
    Good read, good blog, thanks for the honesty and keep doing what you're doing.
    D Smith

  17. I wonder what the state of music would be right now if we only adhered to a musical instrument's heritage. It's all a bit of fuss over nothing really, play what you like, play it how you like, as long as you're enjoying it, it's all good.

  18. Oh thank God I'm not the only one playing (or at least trying and starting to) the uke without having been to Hawaii. I just happened to have friends that play uke and do have some roots in Hawaii. Hung out at their house and tried picking up their uke and looked up chords to a song and voila! Decided to buy my own and start learning to play. Music is music and at the end of the day it's all about getting immersed in the experience. It transcends culture and speaks a higher language than our own pettiness.

  19. I know I am late to this page, but I have thought along the same lines for years. I also play the piano, but I don't dress up as Mozart and speak in German when I'm banging out Edgar Winters' 'Frankenstein' on it!


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