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Have You Every Played the “Jumping Flea?”

Have You Every Played the “Jumping Flea?”

A “jumping flea” sounds like something to be avoided, right? Not if you are from Hawaii and love music. You see the “jumping flea” is a nickname for the musical instrument, the ukulele. The ukulele is a four-stringed, guitar-shaped musical instrument with a long history, not only in Hawaii.

But why is it called a “jumping flea?” Actually there are two versions of the story so you can pick your favorite. One version refers to a Portuguese immigrant that had such great skills with the ukulele and his fingers were so nimble that it seemed as if his fingers were flying. The second version is related to a small man who was quick on his feet and was called “Ukulele” or “little thing that jumps” which is the Hawaiian term for “flea.”

Soon, because of growing demand, many people began to manufacture ukuleles in Hawaii. Many tourists began buying them and it didn’t take long for orders to start pouring in from the U.S. mainland. However, once the ukulele “craze” caught on throughout the U.S. mainland, the mainland started mass-producing them. By advertising which linked the ukulele with luaus, moonlit nights, and island romance, the sales took off and Hawaii began losing money on ukulele sales. Like most “crazes,” the booming ukulele business slowing started dying off by the 1920’s. And, where they were originally handmade out of wood, starting from the 1940’s they began to also be made from plastic. The most expensive, running into thousands of dollars are made from a Hawaiian wood known as koa. The koa is the second most common tree seen in Hawaii. This is the same tree that the ancient Hawaiians used to build their famous outrigger dugout canoes.

Some of the early popularity was related to the instrument being used during the Jazz Age. After that Arthur Godfrey revived interest during the 1950’s. Then, the popularity declined until the 1990’s when a new generation of musicians began using the ukulele. This would include famous names such as George Harrison, the former Beatles musician.

One thing that draws many people to the ukulele is the ease of playing it. In Hawaii it isn’t unusual to see a child, walking home from school, strumming his “uke.” In fact, many Hawaiian schools offer ukulele instruction in their curriculum. The ukulele is most commonly found in four sizes known as soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Because of the sizing, the tone and volume will vary. A felt pick might be used, but most Hawaiians strum the instrument with their index finger. Standard guitar chord names are used for written music for the ukulele.