Women playing the ukeke

Hawaii’s only indigenous string instrument

You might think that the ukelele is a native Hawaiian instrument, but it was actually introduced by the Portuguese. The ukeke, on the other hand, is a very small bow- shaped instrument made out of wood with three strings attached to and around either end, making it the only indigenous string instrument from Hawaii. The strings were strummed with one hand while the other hand holds it against the mouth, using this as a resonance chamber. The ukeke was traditionally played to accompany singing and chanting and is also referred to as ‘the love talk’, as the sound coming out of this instrument is so subtle the listener has to come very close. The player is actually speaking words to his lover, which are muffled by the playing of the instrument but are generally something in the lines of: ‘Quiver above, quiver below. Quiver my beloved, sweet Hawaii, fern of Makana’ Hence the name ukeke being Hawaiian for ‘to quiver’.

Interesting enough, the instrument had become extinct, until artisan Mahi La Pierre started studying old and indigenous Hawaiian music and started making his own version of the ukeke. The biggest challenge for him was to find the proper wood for the body and fibers for the strings, as many of the plants previously used have become endangered species. But he succeeded, you can hear him talk about this on Hawaiian public radio by following this link.