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Rebecca Mulcahy – 2172 8206

The ukulele is a four-stringed instrument that resembles a small guitar. It has origins in the small island of Madeira but has gained popularity globally. As it has expanded it has accumulated difference performance practices, often derived from the culture and music of the place of performance.
In Madeira, the instrument was performed frequently in a community setting and played by almost everyone.5 However, as Madeira changed and Funchal in Madeira became a popular international port the performance practices changed too.5 The performance practices were influenced by visitors to the port and the performances changed from improvised to from different source materials, such as classical pieces of famous composers.5
Portuguese immigrants took the instrument to Hawaii where the ukulele was integrated into already established Hawaiian music performance practices. Upon its arrival, it was influence by the protestant hymns, in the form of himeni.5 Later it became part of the new music style of Hawaii, the hula kui and was established as a staple of Hawaiian music.5
The ukulele has since spread globally from Hawaii and has had many different performance practices applied to it. One of the places in which the ukulele has had significant popularity is in educational institutions, as it is a cheap and easy to play instrument. Ensembles from schools and universities have applied relaxed performance practices unique to their own ensembles.
Performance practice has previously been described as an attempt to reconstruct an original sound, focusing on early European music.1 However, the interpretation of performance practice more recently has changed to instead look at music performance as an event, not just sound, and thus extra musical aspects and communication may be considered a part of performance practice.1
It is important to note that this is not a comprehensive view of the performance practices and is limited by the historical resources available. Additionally, the earliest reviews of Madeiran and Hawaiian performances are from foreigners who often viewed Madeiran and Hawaiian cultures as ‘primitive’ and this likely influenced their largely condescending views on the music of the people. Therefore, it is difficult to determine the quality of sound from these performance practices
The Machete in Madeira
The origins of the ukulele are obscure. It’s first confirmed location is on the Portuguese island of Madeira, although there is speculation that is may have been introduced to Madeira from elsewhere in Portugal.5 In Madeira the small stringed instrument, reminiscent of a guitar, was known as the machete. The performance practices in Madeira may have been influenced by other cultures, as Madeira served as a popular port with international trade from the 15th century and the first records of the machete arise in the 18th century.5
Most of the Portuguese could play the machete, many of those who played were peasants, without formal music training and the performance practices reflect this.5 The machete was often played in a community setting, accompanied by dancing and singing.5 It has been recorded as being played on the way to markets, at work in vineyards and in the streets.5
Outside of Funchal the music was often disliked by visitors.5 According to a visitor Madeirans playing the machete “produce three or four notes, which they repeat over and over again for hours,”
and they “strike with their nails, holding their hand very loosely”.5 This suggests that they were only strumming chords and not plucking any notes. The machete was often played in a community setting, accompanied by dancing and singing; it could be played on the way to markets, at work in vineyards and in the streets.5 Their playing on the machete was frequently accompanied singing and dancing.5 Their singing was described as harsh, discordant and with a “nasal twang” which was “most distressing to anyone unaccustomed to such sounds”.5 They often used the practice of ‘desafio’; that is an improvised ‘dual’ through song, accompanied by a ukulele or accordion.3 The lyrics consisted of rhymed insults or local gossip and the associated audience convention was laughter.5
In Funchal, the centre of the international trade, the music was more appealing to foreigners; it received many favourable reviews.5 A significant difference of the performance practice in Funchal was the source material, which included classical music composed by German composers.5 This source material implies that those in Funchal rejected the practice of improvisation. It was also noted that these were performers of greater skill than found elsewhere.5 As well as this, performances could be memorised, rather than improvised and these types of performances were more frequently performed in an indoor setting.5 Notably the machete was performed in ballrooms4, suggesting that the performance practices were more likely to be drawn from those of other ensembles performing in that setting; in particular the audience conventions, order of program and choice of music.
Figure 1: Performance Practices of the Machette in Madeira
Ukulele in Hawaii
The first ever performance of the machete in Hawaii, in August 1879, derived performance practices from its place of origin, Maderia.5 It was a spontaneous outdoor performance in celebration of the completion of a difficult journey.5 The Madeiran machete, which would soon be renamed a Ukulele, would shortly after its first performance have a huge impact on music in Hawaii. 5
The most profound impact on the early performance practices of the ukulele were the Missionaries who arrived in Hawaii in 1820.5 They deemed the traditional performance of Hawaiian ‘mele’ as inappropriate which led to a new style of performance, himeni.5 This was a Hawaiian style performance of protestant hymns and the predominant style of performance until 1883.5
King David Kalakaua debuted a new performance style, huka kui, in 1883.5 This was a unique blend of traditional and new Hawaiin music, accompanied by dancing and ukulele, taro patch, banjo, violin, or piano.5 An example of an ensemble that used this style were the King’s Singing Boys.5 They were five singers who accompanied themselves with the ukulele and played for the King at suppers and private parties. This formal ensemble wore a uniform of all white with Hawaiian leis.5
Funchal, Madeira
Musical Elements
Sound quality – described as poor by visitors
Sound Quality – described as good by visitors
Performance Cues/Communication
Desafio – improvised lyrics with insults or gossip
From audience – laughter/joining in with singing
Audience conventions of typical ballroom
Extra-musical Aspects
Venue – at work in vineyards, walking to town, religious processions, public performances
Accompanied by dancing and singing
Venue – ballrooms
Other similar ensembles formed and performed in the hula kui style, such as the Volcano Singers.5 They travelled to America and performed frequently.5 They had their own set of performance practices including their own order of program, which consisted of ten songs and concluded with the Hawaiian national anthem.5 Their choice of music was often peaceful and tranquil to present the idealistic image of Hawaii that tourists enjoyed.5
Figure 4: Performance practices of the ukulele in Hawaii.
Ukulele in Education
The Ukulele grew in popularity internationally due to performers such as the Volcano Singers.5 This was helped by the design of the instrument itself, it is cheap to make and simple to learn. This design also led to the ukulele growing in popularity in educational institutions.
Ukulele ensembles are suitable for younger players in ensembles. Students show great enthusiasm for the instrument, which can play renditions of a great variety of songs, including those students choose to listen to.2 It is also quick to learn, with a class of eleven and twelve year olds able to learn a song in a single lesson.7 As well as this it can be used to teach about culture and to encourage singing in the classroom.2
Ukulele ensembles at educational institutions tend to have a unique set of performance practices, derived from them being typically beginner’s ensembles and of a lower sound quality. An example of one of these ensembles is the Homebrew Ukelele Union.6 This is a ukulele ensemble formed as part of a class at the University of Illinois.6 They built their own ukulele’s, learn to play them and then perform in the local community.6 Their performance practices were highly informal; they didn’t worry if the intonation was not right and their playing was imperfect, had no specific setup, no uniforms, lyrics and chord forms displayed on a projector, accompanied their playing with relaxed singing like they would if they were “singing in the car” and played in a pub.6 This informality was reflected by the audience, they laughed and joined in with the singing.6
Figure 3: Performance practices of Homebrew Ukulele Union (Educational Institution)
Musical Elements
Order of program – the Volcano Singers played ten songs and concluded with the Hawaiian national anthem
Performance Cues/Communication
Ideas communicated – idealistic image of Hawaii
Extra-musical Aspects
Source material – himeni (hymns)
Venue – King’s Singing Boys performed at royal suppers and private parties
Homebrew Ukulele Union
Musical Elements
Instrument – unique, hand-made
Quality of sound – low
Performance Cues/Communication
From audience – laughter/joining in with singing
Extra-musical Aspects
Casual dress
Venue – pub
The Ukulele is a versatile instrument that can be played with a range of performance practices. This range of practices has been built over many years, with the instruments spreading globally and being played by unique people, with unique cultures and unique styles of performance. It is simple and easy to play, but can also be played in a quality high enough to please a king. Yet, credit must also be given to more amateur players, those who first enjoyed the machete in madeira as a way to enhance celebrations, those in Hawaii who incorporated it into their hula, and those with limited musical background who learn to play it in a school or university.
By examining performance practices as the elements of an event, and not sound, it shows the true variability in performance. So many elements, such as improvisation, choice of material, cultural practices like Desafio and hula, the performance of the audience and the venue, fuse together to form a performance as a whole. Much of the popularity of the ukulele stems from the range of performance practices it allows, being easy to sing along with, able to play rhythm and melody and showing great adaptation to different cultural contexts. The performance practices applied to the ukulele make the simple, small ukulele such a unique instrument.

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