Impossible Originality

In music, we strive to be unique, innovative, original. But what does it mean to be truly original?

Manuel NunesOn December 29, 1909, an interesting ad appeared in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser, one of Hawaii’s largest newspapers at the time. The ad featured a photo of Manuel Nunes with a caption below claiming that he was the “Inventor of the Ukulele.” The ad outlined the significance of the ʻukulele to Hawaii, its growth in popularity since 1879 (when Nunes purportedly “invented” it), and his intention to open a store in Honolulu to sell his handcrafted instruments. As far as we know, this was the earliest recorded claim of the “inventor” status in ʻukulele history, one that has since largely remained undisputed.

But what does it mean to “invent” something? The inspiration for creating something new, be it a machine, a type of musical instrument, or even an original piece of music, has to come from somewhere. Ultimately, the act of “inventing” comes down to a 3-step process:

1) Observe ideas from the past
2) Utilize one’s resources in the present
3) Recreate and innovate for the future

Following these steps can turn the seemingly impossible act of coming up with something completely new into a simple to replicate method for creation.

1) Learning to Play the ʻUkulele (Observing the Past)

When Manuel Nunes arrived in Hawaii from Madeira, Portugal in 1879, he only had his past to draw on. He had learned the skilled craft of cabinetmaking in his homeland, along with the basic knowledge and woodworking skills to build stringed instruments. The most popular stringed instruments from his past were the 6-stringed guitar, the 5-stringed rajão, and the 4-stringed machete.

After fulfilling his obligations to work on sugar plantations in Hawaii, Nunes returned to Honolulu in 1884 to set up a cabinet making shop. Among other Portuguese woodworkers in Honolulu (notably Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo, both of whom set up stringed instrument shops in the city around the same time), Nunes set about repairing and building the Portuguese instruments of his personal past.

SS Ravenscrag
The SS Ravenscrag, the ship that brought Nunes, Dias, do Espirito Santo, and the first Portuguese machetes to Hawaii (1879)

When it comes to learning to play the ʻukulele, your greatest inspiration will be your own personal past. What music did you grow up listening to? Which artists have influenced your personal musical taste? Really think about these things, immerse yourself in the music, pick apart what makes the music from your past so great.

Begin by learning the chords to the songs that you love. Remember how the songs made you feel in the past and try to translate those feelings into motion as you play along with the recordings. In the same way that Manuel Nunes drew upon his past to fuel his creative career, your past musical preferences should be the foundation, the very launching point, of your ʻukulele journey.

Need help selecting a song? Check out Ukulele Underground’s vast ʻukulele Song Tutorial Library and click on any song you remember from your past.

2) Practicing (Utilizing Your Present Resources)

As the popularity of stringed instruments in Hawaii grew, Nunes, along with several other Portugues woodworkers, began using Hawaii’s abundant resources to build guitars, rajãos, machetes - and every possible iteration between them. (In fact, the ʻukulele is essentially just a midpoint between the rajão and the machete. It takes the 17-fret fingerboard from the machete, the tuning from the rajão (minus the 5th string), and an overall length somewhere between the two instruments.)

In Portugual, machetes were typically constructed of pinewood soundboards matched with cade or black til back and sides. Because pine was available in Hawaii (European sailors planted pine in the islands as potential replacement ship masts nearly a century earlier), many machetes and early ʻukuleles in Hawaii were built with pine tops. But Nunes, Dias, and do Espirito Santo all began using native Hawaiian hardwoods such as kou and koa, mainly because they were abundant. By utilizing the resources presently available to them to build their instruments, these ʻukulele building pioneers helped to create an instrument that was uniquely Hawaiian.

As you begin exploring the music of your past through your ʻukulele, be sure to take advantage of all of the modern tools at your disposal. It is a fantastic time to learn music. Search the internet for ʻukulele tutorials of any of your favorite songs, find chord and lyric sheets, tabs, even private online lessons (all included when you Sign Up for UU+). Use the “speed” feature available on most streaming video players to slow down tricky parts of songs. Watch videos of other people doing ʻukulele covers of your favorite songs to get inspiration for your own versions. Join in on live streaming play-alongs, like Ukulele Underground’s Aloha Friday Live Jam (every Friday at 1pm HST on the UU YouTube Live channel ), to quickly learn new songs and meet other people who are learning, too.

With the technology available to you today, there are so many new ways to help you to learn, practice your ʻukulele, and expand your abilities. Like Nunes and the other pioneering Portuguese ʻukulele makers did during their time, use the resources available to you in the present to develop your craft.

3) Songwriting & Inventing Something New (Innovating for the Future)

At the same time that Nunes and his contemporaries were recreating and hybridizing the instruments in their past using the tools and resources in their present, Hawaii itself was undergoing a cultural revolution. Hawaii’s King Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874-1891, began campaigns to revive and reinvigorate ancient Hawaiian culture using the modern technology, instruments, and economic policy of the day. The stringed instruments that the Portuguese woodworkers had been referring to as rajãos and machetes, took on new life - and new names, like “Taro-patch fiddle” and “ukulele” - courtesy of the Hawaiian musicians who played them. Using feedback from these musicians and through slow iteration, the idea of the “ukulele” congealed in both physical form and in the public consciousness.

By the time the ad featuring Manuel Nunes as the “Inventor of the Ukulele” appeared in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser in 1909, the concept that the ʻukulele was a unique Hawaiian instrument had already spread, having been featured by Hawaiian musicians at several World’s Fairs including Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Through marketing, Manuel Nunes’ “inventor” meme took hold, and while “inventing something brand new” sounds exciting and grandiose, the reality was far simpler. Nunes, along with several other Portuguese woodworkers in Hawaii at the time, simply observed the instruments of their past, utilized the resources of their present, and adapted their designs for Hawaii’s evolving musical landscape heading into the future.

Volcano Singers Ukulele
The Volcano Singers. The very first documented ukulele performance in the US, Chicago World's Fair (1893). Photo Credit: Jeff Carr, harpguitars.net

You can use this very same process in regards to your own ʻukulele playing. “Inventing something new” can be as simple as learning the songs you’ve loved in the past, practicing them by utilizing the resources available to you in the present, and creating your own new and unique ways of playing those songs as you evolve as an ʻukulele player. Eventually you can even move towards writing your own original songs, the ultimate in self-expression and invention. But the process will be the same:

1) Draw inspiration from the songs and musical artists that you have come to know and love.
2) Practice these songs and combine them in interesting new ways (change the key, switch up the notes, do song mashups, write new lyrics using the same motifs, etc).
3) If you iterate enough, eventually you will find that you’ve created something brand new.

So did Manuel Nunes really “invent” the ʻukulele? As Ernest Ka’ai, one of the first well known ʻukulele players once remarked, “[the ʻukulele was] not an invention but rather a creation.” Either way, Manuel Nunes and his contemporaries undoubtedly engaged in the steady process that all great inventors and creators go through (and you can, too!). Observe the past, utilize present resources, innovate for the future. No matter what your endeavor, consistently engaging in these three simple steps can easily turn the dauntingly “impossible” act of creating something new into many of your own musical “inventions” all along your ʻukulele journey.

Aloha,
-UU Staff

Comments

  1. Thanks for this Post Aaron, Without this post how do we go on as players towards the future. Also thanks for the podcast post on click bait as a new player it is easy to be lured to easy songs to learn and be trapped in a cycle of easy to learn and three cord songs, I want to learn the correct way and proceed from there, bring on the history mixed with the making of the ukulele and with your guys quick wit I think I found a great resource,

    1. Yes! The rajão, the larger 5-stringed instrument, had a re-entrant tuning of DGCEA. The ukulele used this exact tuning, minus the D string. The machete used a standard ascending tuning of DGBE, so basically the same as a baritone ukulele but an octave up. Machete Rajao Ukulele Tuning

      1. Of course, the baritone ukulele wouldn’t be “invented” until at least the 1940s – and the same line of reasoning can be drawn for how the baritone ukulele came into existence, but that story is probably for another article!

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