The uninitiated think the ukulele was invented by the Hawaiians. This is debatable, but they are undoubtedly responsible for its comical name which means ‘jumping flea’. Various unverified reasons are given for it being so-called, but I won’t waste time or space presenting any of them.
Loads of references to the ukulele, but with other names, such as ‘braguinha’ and ‘cavaquinho’, regard Portugal as the country of its origin, but look back across the earlier centuries and its relatives and influences are abundant. Allow me to pick a few.
Because the ukulele’s basic shape is like a small guitar, the implication is that it came into being after the guitar. However it was, along with other related instruments, a contemporary of the guitar, maybe even earlier. I am thinking to include in the family the mediaeval citole, gittern and cittern, all of which had fretted necks and similar stringing characteristics. The illustration shows a citole which I made from researching iconographic examples in cathedrals, monasteries and other sources in England, France and Spain.
An instrument with recognisable parallels to the ukulele was the chittarino, whose Italian name meant ’little guitar’, which after all, is what it is. Half way through the 16th century it was referred to as the guitar with 7 strings, ‘chitarra da sette corde’, made up of three doubles and a single. One still in existence has four double strings and was made by Giovanni Smit in 1646, possibly an English maker. This may be seen in the Kunsthistorische Museum of Vienna. It was on this instrument that I based my own chittarino, made in 2013.
We refer to this latter instrument as the Renaissance guitar
Several instruments which may be regarded as versions of the Renaissance guitar migrated around Europe, such as the Spanish guitarra, the French guiterne, or guiterre, the chittarino in Italy, quintern in Germany and gittern in England. As already mentioned, the Portuguese cavaquinho and braguinha which migrated via Madeira to Hawaii, were clearly responsible for its establishment as what is now universally known as the ukulele. Since then its popularity grew in mainland USA and from the early 20th century it has gradually become a world-wide much-loved instrument.
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