Why You Should Take the Ukulele Seriously

Jim Tranquada Interview: Why You Should Take the Ukulele Seriously

You may have seen our last blog post, about a talk ‘Why You Should Take the Ukulele Seriously’ in LA, that I wish I had been able to go to. As I live too far away, I wanted to get the nuts and bolts of that talk, and I thought others might also be interested to read it. So, thankfully, Jim Tranquada agreed to answer a few of my questions. I hope you enjoy reading the answers as much as I did:

Jim Tranquada, author of Ukulele: A History.

Jim Tranquada, author of Ukulele: A History.

1. Your Great-Grandfather was Augusto Dias. He is Ukulele Royalty. For those who don’t know about him, please tell us about him.

Augusto was born on the island of Madeira in 1842, the son of a barrelmaker. Nineteenth century Madeira was a troubled place, enduring the pressures of overpopulation, two infestations that devastated the vineyards, famine, and a major cholera epidemic. It’s not surprising that he, the woman who would eventually become his wife and their four children were among the first Portuguese recruited by the Hawaiian Bureau of Immigration as contract workers (that is, cheap labor) for the sugar plantations. The irony was that Augusto (a cabinetmaker by trade) and the vast majority of the other people aboard the Ravenscrag – the ship that took them to Hawai’i in 1879 — were from the city of Funchal, and had probably never set foot on a farm before. Like so many others, Augusto set up shop in Honolulu as soon as his contract was over. As a recent immigrant with limited resources, he set up a furniture and guitar shop in Chinatown, then considered Honolulu’s worst slum.

He and his friends Jose do Espirito Santo and Manuel Nunes were the craftsmen who first made and sold Madeiran machetes in Hawai’i – what quickly became known as ‘ukulele. Augusto was unlucky – he lost his shop and all of his inventory twice, in the Chinatown fires of 1886 and 1900, and his only son died an alcoholic in his early 20s. He also seems to have been a magnet for trouble. In 1892, a member of a gambling ring unsuccessfully tried to stash some evidence in his shop while being pursued by the police; seven years later, Augusto ended up in court testifying in the case of the man accused of trying to dynamite the Portuguese consul’s home. He was also a short man, only 5’5”, with a short man’s temper – he once shoved a guy through Santo’s shop window during an argument.

Augusto could not only make instruments, but he could play. According to family legend, he played for King Kalakaua in the royal bungalow on the grounds of Iolani Palace. That, the story goes, is how he got addicted to booze and the high life. His alcunha, or nickname – the Portuguese are big on nicknames — was O Santinho, the little saint, because he wasn’t. He was very strict with his six daughters, however, insisting on a strict chaperone system until they were safely married.

Dias ‘ukulele are the rarest of those made by the three original makers. I’m aware of 10 known examples, including the flamed koa instrument he made for his oldest grandson Charlie Gilliland in 1895 – the last one in the family – and two in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu.

2. You saw the completion of the book, Ukulele: A History. It’s credited to John King. Please, tell us about the writing of that book, and how it all came about/got finished.

Like many members of the modern ‘ukulele community, John and I met online. I had discovered his Nalu Music website and sent him an email in January 2002, which quickly turned into a regular correspondence when he realized I shared his obsession for ‘ukulele history. I had started working on an article for the Hawaiian Journal of History and suggested we join forces, which we did. After we submitted the article, we both had the same idea: maybe there’s a book in this. Naïve as we were – two independent scholars with no advanced degrees and a very thin record of scholarly publications – we put together a proposal and submitted to the publisher we thought the most likely, the University of Hawai’i Press. The proposal was accepted in the summer of 2003, and off we went.

Writing consisted of exchanging emails – ideas, outlines, draft chapters. (I live in Los Angeles; John lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. We didn’t meet face to face until 2004, when we both attended Uke Fest West in Santa Cruz.) It was a lengthy process, since John and I were researching and writing in our spare time, late at night, on weekends and vacations. We’d only completed two chapters when John suddenly, unexpectedly, tragically died in April 2009. I owed it to John and myself to finish the book, so I did. It’s really a tribute to his memory.

3. What were the top unreported facts you learned during the process?

What prompted us to write the book was the sense that there were very few facts associated with the history of the ‘ukulele. What passed for history was just a mix of misconception and myth that had been repeated for so long that everyone took it for the truth. Many people have commented on, and certainly wondered about, the number and extent of the footnotes in the book. John and I wanted to make sure that everything we wrote was fully documented, from original, contemporary sources whenever possible, so readers could have confidence in what we were saying and could go back and check the sources for themselves. (Footnotes are also the ideal location for bits and pieces that would otherwise clog up the narrative, but are just too good to discard.) In the largest sense, the top unreported fact about the ‘ukulele is that it has a real history.

4. How did you come to play the ukulele? What does it mean to you?

You could say it runs in the family. My father’s father, who could remember visting Augusto’s ‘ukulele shop on Union Street in Honolulu, played the ‘ukulele as part of a Hawaiian quartet to help pay for college, and my father on his first date with my mother actually took her out in a canoe and played the ‘ukulele and sang to her. (I’m glad to say she married him anyway.) I didn’t start until I started poking into the family history as an adult. The sad truth is I’m a lousy player, but when I pick up my uke – it’s a remarkable replica of one of Augusto’s early instruments, light as a feather and remarkably loud, made by Michael DaSilva – it’s not just a musical experience for me. It’s a picking up a tie to my family history. It’s kind of cool to be able to say that people in my family have been playing the ‘ukulele as long as there has been a ‘ukulele. Even if I am playing very badly.

5. Why should people take the ukulele seriously? 

In the United States, Tiny Tim is the reason why most people in the United States don’t take ‘ukulele seriously. (The UK equivalent is George Formby.) Since Tiny Tim’s TV debut on Laugh-In in 1968, he has always provoked strong reactions.
Life magazine called his debut album “one of the most dazzling albums of programmed entertainment to come along since Sergeant Pepper,” while Time called him “the most bizarre entertainer this side of Barnum & Bailey’s sideshow.” He still provokes powerful reactions today within the ukulele community, with indignant partisans on both sides of the argument.

Regardless of the passionate feelings he inspires in the ukulele community, among the general public, most people regard him as a falsetto freak show. He is the first thing – sometimes the only thing — people think of when the ukulele is mentioned. He’s certainly the first thing newspaper reporters think of, almost 50 years after his brief career flowered and died. I once checked more than 40 stories on the ukulele that appeared or were aired in major print and radio outlets between 1998 and 2010, including The New York Times, USA Today, NPR, the L.A. Times, even the National Post up in Canada. All but three of them prominently mentioned Tiny Tim.

But what I think of is the Hawaiian National Band – Ka Bana Lahui – which was formed in 1893 by former members of the Royal Hawaiian Band after the overthrow of the monarchy.

The Provisional Government required all band members – who were government employees — to sign a loyalty oath to the new government, and most of them refused. They were instantly dismissed. Undaunted, they quickly acquired a new set of instruments, and began to perform on a regular basis throughout the Islands, becoming a rallying point for native Hawaiians, the vast majority of whom also supported the monarchy.

In 1895 they went on a tour of the mainland to try and rally support for the restoration of Queen Liliuokalani. As the band said in a statement while performing in Dallas at the Texas State Fair, its mission was,

“to let the people of this country judge whether the natives of the islands are a barbarous, ignorant, uncivilized tribe, with cannibalistic tendencies, or an enlightened and educated race of people who have been deprived of their property, their liberty, and their country by an intriguing lot of foreigners masquerading before the world in the virtuous garb of the missionaries.”

The 40-piece band was “double-handed” – that is, each member could play more than one instrument, a brass or reed as well as some kind of string instrument – including the ‘ukulele. By 1895, most ukuleles were made of koa. Koa is a tree indigenous to the Islands, originally used for canoes. In the 19th century, cabinetmakers discovered its beauty, and it quickly became closely associated with the Hawaiian royal family.

Hawaii’s first royal throne was made of koa; Hawaiian kings and queens slept in koa beds, sat in a koa pew in church and were buried in koa coffins. The impressive main staircase at Iolani Palace is made of koa. Koa became a symbol of aloha aina, or love of the land.

Playing on a koa ukulele was an act of Hawaiian patriotism, like displaying the national flag. That was particularly true when those songs featured protest lyrics – sometimes veiled, sometimes overt. The most famous of the period is “Kaulana na pua,” “Famous are the flowers,” a tribute to the band boys’ refusal to sign the loyalty oath that is still played today.

Here are the lyrics of the third verse. If you don’t speak Hawaiian, this would likely sound like any other song about flowers and mountain mists:

A’ole a’e kau i ka pulima
Ma luna o ka pepa o ka enemi
Ho’ohui aina ku’ai hewa
I ka pono sivila ao ke kanaka

But here’s the translation

Do not fix a signature
To the paper of the enemy
With its sin of annexation
And the sale of the civil rights of the people

Keep in mind that the band was playing this and other counterrevolutionary songs at a time when people were being thrown in jail for criticizing the provisional government, and government informers were filing regular reports to the Interior Ministry about the band’s potentially subversive activities.

This is all a far cry from “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” or “Leaning on a Lampost.”


I highly recommend you grab a copy of the book Ukulele: A History, you can do that here:

(I wasn’t paid or given any gifts to say that.)

Why You Should Take the Ukulele Seriously

You should TOTALLY take the ukulele seriously. I’m just about to have a mini rant, so please forgive the unusual tone which strays from the usual feel of this site.

Having seen the details of this talk, I immediately want to attend. Slight problem is, the talk is held in Los Angeles rather than London. So, I’ve contacted the speaker, Jim Tranquada, to ask if he’ll feature on an interview blog. I’d imagine everyone will be interested in what he has to say, so I’ll share it as soon as it’s up.

Why is this topic such a hot one for me? Having been endlessly teased and had needless George Formby chats with random people who know absolutely nothing about the ukulele, I’ve been on a side campaign to try to make people to see it as a serious instrument, rather than a ‘toy guitar’ or a ‘mini guitar’ or ‘cute little thing’ or whatever. It was the reason I got into playing music, along with hundreds of others I know. Whilst many choose to use it in their comedy routines, I try to give it the respect it deserves as an instrument. I hope that you do, too.

Why You Should Take the Ukulele Seriously.

Since we’re not based in LA, Jim very kindly agreed to give us more information from his talk. You can read it here.

Ukulele Workshop in London with Manitoba Hal

Canadian Ukulele Blues Star Manitoba Hal joins us for a Ukulele Workshop

I am really chuffed to announce a workshop with the inimitable Canadian blues ukulele player, Manitoba Hal, primarily for our alumni students, but, since Hal only has 1 London workshop date, we’re happy to share him! Places are very limited, so book here if you want to join the fun.

As most of you will know, Hal is a tour de force. He banishes plinky plonky hula ukey in favour of accomplished blues riffs. The video below was Ukulele Hunt’s video of the year 2010.  It really is something to see and hear. Hell, don’t take my word for it. Listen to it for yourself:

Here’s his official blurb:

Manitoba Hal is one of Canada’s most well known ukulele players. He is also an accomplished guitarist and songwriter. Hal proves that the uke can be small but mighty as he pulls out powerful blues riffs and melodies.

Hal uses a looping technology to produce a one-man-band experience, adding subtle but important background beats to his extraordinary ukulele strumming and riffing. Many wouldn’t associate the ukulele as a blues instrument, but Hal takes out all the hula, leaving only room for deep blues to prevail. After his grandfather gave him a uke in ’95, Hal found that it transferred easily from his blues guitar style, complimenting his combination of finger picking and strumming, and gospel vocal style.


Hal will be performing for workshop attendees after the workshop, so come down and share a burger with us beforehand and stick around afterwards. You won’t regret it!

Hal’s UK tour is being organised by the lovely people behind the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival. You can see more information here. (Thank you also for the tour poster, designed by Shelley Rickey

Want to come along? Grab your ticket here, whilst stocks last! [this event was in the past]

What is that Ukulele in the Canary Islands?

Canarian Ukulele? Yes! The Timple from the Canary Islands

International ukuleles, (well, not actually ukuleles in many cases, if we’re being really honest) come in all different shapes and sizes. The Timple, from the Canary Islands (sometimes known as the Tiple, as the instrument of this name is known as in Argentina, Columbia, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Menorca, Peru and Uruguay) is one of them. It has 5 strings rather than 4, and they are tuned to the notes G-C-E-A-D. If you were to ignore the top string that is tuned to a D, you’d have a ukulele. That’s the way that many of the young Timple Players in the Canary Islands do it these days, apparently, though the traditional 5 string players frown upon this type of behaviour, as it is ‘considered less traditional’. As wikipedia puts it:

The timple is a traditional Spanish 5-string plucked string instrument of the Canary Islands.

In La Palma island and in the north of the island of Tenerife, many timple players omit the fifth (D) string, in order to play the timple as a four-string ukulele, though this is considered less traditional by players and advocates of the five-string version. The players of the four-string style, in return, say that they are simply playing the timple in the old-fashioned way from before the time when a fifth string was introduced in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. The common tuning is GCEAD.

Timple players (timplistas) of note are Benito Cabrera from Lanzarote, José Antonio Ramos and Totoyo Millares from Gran Canaria, and Pedro Izquierdo from Tenerife.

If you listen to the timplistas above, you’ll hear that some people play them like a classical guitar, or like a classical guitar mixed with a Spanish guitar, or simply like a Spanish guitar, and others play their Timples like ukuleles. It seems the Canarian cousin of the ukulele, the Timple has very distinct similarities, as we all know, the uke sounds very different depending upon who’s hands it ends up in.

I first came across the timple in 2010 because of Bossarocker, Lou Armer, who came over to Tenerife to see me, and had done her homework on their local instruments. This peaked my interest and I’ve been back a few times bugging the local music shops by tinkering around with their instruments. We toyed with the idea of buying one back in 2010, but we didn’t dive in. I’m now wondering whether I made a mistake, as I’d be a lot further along with my Timple playing than I am now. Ah well.

Here’s some skilled Timple players that I found on YouTube for you to feast your eyes on. (If you wait for video number 2, try not to compare them to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.

Here’s how it should be done:

Want to learn how to play Timple yourself? (In Spanish) Go here.

Or, if you fancy learning how to play the Ukulele in pubs in London. Come to us!