Hawaii: Strum a tune about jumping fleas

By Jim Eagles

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Brian Benavente at the Ko Aloha ukulele factory in Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo / Jim Eagles
Brian Benavente at the Ko Aloha ukulele factory in Honolulu, Hawaii. Photo / Jim Eagles

What's the most common tune played on a ukulele? My guess would be My Dog Has Fleas. Well, that's the tune I played on one of the instruments on display at Ko Aloha Ukulele factory in Honolulu, and I've certainly heard it a lot.

If your musicianship isn't quite as advanced as mine, My Dog Has Fleas is the tune you get by running your fingers slowly across the four strings on a standard ukulele: my, dog, has, fleas.

Not very melodic, true, but appropriate because the name ukulele roughly translates in Hawaiian as "jumping fleas".

That's because in 1879 - the first time Hawaiians saw the Portuguese stringed instrument, the cavaquinho, from which the ukulele was to develop - they thought the fingers of the musician jumped like fleas.

But, despite the fleas, the Hawaiians also thought the music this instrument produced was fantastic.

The three visitors from the Portuguese island of Madeira who are credited with bringing the first cavaquinho and giving concerts became instant celebrities.

Before long a local variation - the beginnings of the ukulele - was being made locally. The Hawaiian monarch, King David Kalakaua, included the ukulele in musical events at his Iolani Palace. And a new musical tradition had been launched.

If you want to see what the cavaquinho that started all this looks like there's one - also called the braguinha - on display in the excellent Lyman House Museum in Hilo on Hawaii's Big Island.

If you want to see ukuleles in action then you can do that just about anywhere in Hawaii because they're still tremendously popular. During a short trip through the Hawaiian islands we came across them at places as disparate as a leafy park on Kalakaua Ave in Waikiki, the Old Lahaina Luau on Maui, the restaurant of the Hotel Molokai on Molokai, and the Bishop Museum on Oahu, playing everything from traditional Hawaiian songs to modern pop, and from the bizarre When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop to classical music.

But if you want to find out about ukuleles then the place to go is definitely the Ko Aloha Ukulele factory - a stopping point on Honolulu's Red Line Tram (a great way to explore the city) - where they make some of the finest ukuleles in the world.

In the workshop there you can watch while the components of the ukulele are individually crafted from local timbers - "but," emphasised showroom manager Brian Benavente, "we only use fallen trees" - into a pineapple ukulele, Ko Aloha's unique crown-shaped sceptre-ukulele which produces an amazing booming sound, or the classic violin-shaped instrument.

This is a fascinating place full of the smells of freshly applied varnish and aromatic timbers, the strange shapes of the tools and moulds used to transform pieces of timber into musical instruments, rows of finely made necks, bridges and bodies waiting to be assembled and the deft fingers of the small team of craftsmen who handmake each ukulele.

While we're soaking all this up, Brian was outlining the history of the ukulele and explaining how changing the shape or the kind of timber can alter the sound.

Then, back in the showroom, there's a magnificent display of the company's ukuleles and photos of some of the notable artists who use them.

Brian not only helps make these instruments, when he's not showing people round, he also strums a mean ukulele, everything from the Beetles to Beethoven, while modestly explaining "what I really play is a guitar".

And just in case you think ukulele music doesn't amount to much, I should mention that we brought back a couple of CDs featuring musicians using Ko Aloha instruments: Gordon Mark's Personal Notes featuring a range from the Hawaiian tune to Chopin's Nocturne No 2 and Daniel Ho's Pineapple Mango which included Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring and his own Pineapple Mango. Both are superb.

But, while the Ko Aloha ukuleles are clearly superb and are used by a number of virtuoso performers, they are quite expensive and their amazing sound would have been wasted on me.

So I didn't buy one there. Instead I bought a US$10 Made in China instrument from a souvenir shop in Lahaina. It was perfect. Back in New Zealand we gave it to my youngest grandson Liam, 3, and he was delighted.

His big brother Jamie, 5, thinks my rendition of On Top Of Spaghetti accompanied by ukulele is fantastic. But I reckon my unique rendition of My Dog Has Fleas is probably my finest musical achievement.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct to Honolulu up to three times per week. Long-term airfares in Pacific Economy class are available from $1500 per person return plus airport and government costs.

Where to stay: The Royal Hawaiian Hotel, known as the pink palace, is the second oldest hotel in Waikiki and sits right on the beach.

What to do: Ko Aloha Ukulele.

Further information: See discoverhawaii.co/nz

Jim Eagles visited Hawaii as guest of Air New Zealand and Hawaii Tourism Oceania.

- NZ Herald

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