My Dog Has Jumping Fleas

In the heat of a July summer sun, a plastic human figure with its translucent plastic grass skirt sways on the dashboard with every bump and turn watching the world roll by. You have probably seen this particular piece of kitsch. Typically, it is used to sell car related items, the cars themselves, air fresheners, insurance, and toy cars to children. It is the dashboard doll hula girl. When the hula girl isn’t enough, you can see a tiki or two thrown in to prop up the island lifestyle message. Though there were hula dolls made in Hawaii by Hawaiians since 1900, the dashboard hula doll was created and popularized among soldiers post-WWII and was mostly manufactured in postwar Japan. Two types exist: one is where the hula girls hands are in her hair, and the other features her strategically holding a ukulele to cover what otherwise would be a bare chest.1

I would like to say I don’t understand why companies, and their marketing departments, use a misogynistic, colonial, exploitive lens to sell products to consumers as young as 8, but I know because I have.2 That being said let’s stick with the two poses for a moment if just to say that hula is an interpretive dance in which the motion and gesture of the hands are the most significant aspect of the communication. To remove the hands or to otherwise occupy them is to remove the voice of the dancer. The rhythm of hula comes from traditional and contemporary chanting rhythms and their original Polynesian beats. You could further conclude that occupying the hands of a hula dancer is a denial of the cultural memory of the Kanaka Maoli, who for thousands of years without a written language communicated the values, memories, and stories through dance and chant. Many never ask how the ukulele ended up in this dashboard hula doll’s otherwise silent hands or used by companies on its own to symbolically “inspire customers to relax in style.”

Where did a string instrument come from in a culture that uses chants, percussion, and performance to communicate its oral history? Before we begin that answer, I want to say that I will use two spellings of Hawai’i/Hawaii, but will not use them interchangeably. I will try to keep Hawaii to mean the United States protectorate and state, and Hawai’i to mean the sovereign nation and traditional culture of the Kanaka Maoli.3 Using the diacritical mark as a wayfinding symbol of native versus alien. As we go, we will find how easy it gets confused and could have the same and more productive conversation as “native AND alien” instead. We will start to tell this story through two island chains across the world from each other and in separate oceans. It is a fitting start since we just talked about hula gestures whose bulk are for geographic features that help with the wayfinding in Hawai’ian story tradition.

These two archipelagoes are linked in exploitation, colonization, questionable farming practices, and the introduction of disease. By 1840, Hawai’i had radically changed because of the arrival of Captain James Cook in the late 1770s.4 Once great explorers themselves, around 300 AD the first colonizers of what would become Hawaii set off on a 3,760 km journey from the Marquesas Islands with chickens, bananas, coconut, taro root, and sweet potatoes with the expectation of finding land.5 Around the twelfth century, Hawaii was again colonized by Tahitians.6 The Tahitian priest Pa’ao was instrumental in establishing a caste system that oppressed the current inhabitants’ culture and instituted kapu.7 The arrival of Cook set off a chain of events that within 50 years lead to the rapid decline in population, loss of sovereignty for the Kanaka Maoli, the ending of kapu, the exportation and deforestation of the sandalwood trees, and the first sugar plantation. Shortly after the end of kapu, Christian missionaries arrive in Hawai’i and quickly fill the religious vacuum. Hula and other traditions were banned.

The 60 years after Cook saw the population drop through war and disease from around 400,000 to 40,000 decimating the Kanaka Maoli. In 1848-1850 faster ships made the travel of smallpox and influenza possible with the influx of missionaries and international commerce. Oahu lost half its population, and thousands died of influenza compounding the population crisis.

Kapu had determined how land was distributed among the Kanaka Maoli. But in 1845 Kamehameha III issued the Great Mehele, which allowed foreigners to own land. The population drop fed into the growth of foreign landowners. When the American Civil War started the new landowners profited greatly from their sugar exports to the North, who no longer imported the commodity from the South. Plantations grew and required labor. The sources for this workforce came from, Mexico, China, Filipinos, Japan and eventually the Portuguese islands of Madeira.

I am conscious that a human timescale has been compressed to function more like a geological timeframe. What I have mentioned about the political and cultural history of Hawai’i is just an outline of the forces that pushed the ukulele into creation. Similar forces both geologically and politically acted across the world on Madeira. Around 800 AD the Iberian peninsula is conquered by the Moors. During the next 400 years, there is a blending of musical instruments, tuning, and composition. Most notably for our purposes the introduction to Spanish and Portuguese cultures of reentrant tuning.8 When the Portuguese achieved independence in 1249 from the Moors and Spain by 1385, they began their age of exploration leading to the rediscovery of Madeira.

Land was cleared through burning and exportation of timber and two crops were planted grapes and sugar cane. The Braga settlers also brought the machete de Braga or braguinha. This instrument would be the basis for the musical ensembles in Madeira and led to the creation of accompanying instruments and notably for us the rajao. By 1500, Madeira was the world’s largest sugar producer. Unable to compete with the less expensive sugar from Brazil, and the West Indies, Madeiran sugar production waned, and wine production filled the economic gap.

Again winning their independence from Spain, Portugal signs a protection treaty with England in 1640 that gives the English the economic upper hand. The Marquis of Pombal, the current Prime Minister of Portugal, remarked in 1755, that the British,” conquered us without the inconvenience of a conquest.”9 After the Napoleonic Wars, England removed its garrison from Madeira, but the wars themselves found Portugal burdened with debt further exacerbating the already fragile economy. Madeira became a vacation spot for the Brittish, who enjoyed the mild weather, and English money became the used currency for the area. The majority use of the land was for the cash crop of wine, and the bulk of food for the people had to be imported. Consequently, in the 1840s a series of crop failures met with international recession that when coupled with a Brittish dominated monoculture agriculture and overpopulation caused famine to sweep the land.10 Mass emigration began when Brittish needed cheap labor in the wake of the abolition of slavery.

With starvation, and exploitation facing them at home, there should be no surprise that three Portuguese cabinet makers would join the thousand already working and living in underpopulated Hawai’i. What did come as a surprise to many arriving in Honolulu was the vista of a large American-style city in contrast to the expectation of tropical nature and wild savages. In fact, these three would have left one of the most illiterate European countries for the most literate country in the world. One of the most valuable things the missionaries brought with them was writing and using the latin alphabet the Hawai’ians codified the Kanaka Maoli language into a written form.

After the five months long British occupation of Hawai’i and the restoration of the monarchy by the US Navy, Hawai’i and the United States of America entered into several diplomatic agreements. US currency was the currency used throughout the islands. Eventually, these agreements led to the 1875 Reciprocity Treaty, which removed any tariffs on the import of Hawai’ian sugar to the USA and gave the US Navy the use of Pearl Harbor.

Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose Espirito Santo, the three Portagues cabinet makers, found themselves living in another society where music making was an essential part of everyday life. King David Kalakaua had inspired the continuation of Hawai’ian arts, the reinstatement of the hula, and played several instruments including the Spanish guitar. There was also “tarro-patch” music, music that was played in the fields of the plantations. None of these three cabinet makers came to Hawai’i to create a musical instrument, but they could see the opportunity for an easy to learn, easy to play instrument to accompany short structured songs.

The year they landed, 1879, they produced the first ukulele. The scale was similar to the braguinha, but the tuning came from the rajao. They took the DGCEA strings of the five-string rajao and used four for the ukulele GCEA.11 The braguinha used four different dimensioned strings; the rajao can get by with three; the ukulele uses two and cheaper versions of the ukulele use just one. The marketing plan kicked off with an introduction of the ukulele to the royal family who enjoyed it. King Kalakaua gave Manuel Nunes the right to use the royal seal on the ukuleles he manufactured. Both poor and wealthy bought the instrument, and it was played throughout Hawai’i. And the ukulele and hula appeared together for the first time as part of Kalakaua’s Jubilee celebration in 1886.

Debates continue on the origin of the name of the ukulele. The explanations vary from jumping fleas to the cat flea, it could reference the ukulele as a “gift that came here” or a pun on a previous Hawai’ian instrument and to sing and dance. The royal family was known to utilize the limited consonants of the Kanaka Maoli language to make double or triple meanings within their everyday speech. It is recorded that Queen Lili’uokalani preferred the meaning “the gift that came here.”12

The descendants of the Christian missionaries had grown wealthy, powerful and influential within Hawai’ian society and the US government.13 Two coup attempts were made. The first in 1887 after an armed rebellion installed a constitution that stripped the elected monarchy of much of its power. And the second came as a result of the monarchy abrogation of the 1887 Bayonet Constitution in 1893 with the idea of preserving Hawai’ian sovereignty. On January 17, 1893, the grandson of missionaries Lorrin Thurston and the rest of the Committee of Saftey took control of the government building, Aliʻiōlani Hale. With Thurston’s connections to the US government, the Committee was recognized as the de facto government of the new Republic of Hawai’i, which was annexed by the United States as the Territory of Hawaii in 1898. Despite formal protest by the former Queen Lili’uokalani, the Kanaka Maoli and immigrated people of Hawai’i.

Hawai’ian culture was exhibited at the 1915 Pan Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, a celebration of the opening of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. The most popular pavilion by far was the one that featured the hula and ukuleles performances. Two of Manuel Nunes’ granddaughters were among those who taught ukulele lessons during the exhibition.14 The ukulele crossed as one of the latest fads, spreading through vaudeville acts and jazz music. When Manuel Nunes died in 1922, his obituary was picked up by wire services and printed in newspapers nationwide as the death of the inventor of the ukulele. The instrument was so entrenched within US society as a Hawai’ian instrument that when the anthropologist Helen Robert published her 400-page report on the ancient chants and songs of the Hawai’ian Islands in 1924 that the small blip the ukulele was not “native” eclipsed the rest of the documentation. This revelation satisfied beliefs at the time that a non-white mind wouldn’t be capable of making such a creation. Between 1915 and 1924 over 4 million ukuleles had been sold on the mainland. By the late thirties, the first wave of the ukulele had come to a close and musicians sought to de-Hawaiianize the sound.

The next wave was coupled with plastic ukulele production in post-WWII Japan. The inexpensive nature of the production helped place a ukulele in almost every child’s hands. In mainstream music at the time even the more traditionally manufactured ukulele was seen as a background sound or novelty instrument (even just a prop) especially when featured on the popular variety shows at the time. There was a movement to take the ukulele seriously on its own as an instrument which failed to get traction. The ukulele was saved from being only a novelty and disappearing after this was in many ways itself and the importance of music in education.

Unlike the recorder, and penny whistle the ukulele lends itself to the study of harmony. As an instrument, the ukulele has found its place in the world appreciated for the same reasons it was created: ease of play, inexpensive to manufacture, and capable of being played solo as well as in ensembles. The world is following Hawaii’s and Canada’s example in utilizing it for musical education. Consequently, you see its use growing among bands, at home with users of youtube, and protest and peace rallies.

Though the ukulele has found its ecological nitch, Hawaii swims in the ocean of new discussions of how Hawaiian is defined in an ever-shrinking globalized world. Hula itself is open to contemporary practices as much as traditional, and a hula competition called the Merrie Monarch happens every year, but versions that satisfy the tourist expectation of hula are still performed nightly.15 As a series of islands, Hawaii has become the poster child for ecological areas suffering from invasive species. Airplanes bringing tourist and ballast water from cruise ships and cargo vessels have brought disease and competitive species to the otherwise isolated archipelago.16

Within the political sphere, the term “native species” could mean something that has always geographically Hawai’ian or something the Polynesians brought with them, which included over thirty species of plants. Unique to the Hawai’ian islands is the concept whether or not something that is culturally introduced is necessarily alien. As the Hawaiians observe the front lines of their ecology one of the first test whether or not something is alien or native is if it has a Hawai’ian name. That discussion continues to grow as well as who defines what is truly Hawai’ian. There is even still debate of the island chain again becoming a sovereign nation. Most importantly for our discussion is the question if these islands will see the same ecological and commercial effects that Madeira saw little over 150 years ago and the similar unfortunate consequences.

Off the coast of Hawaii, a new island forms and will appear in ten thousand years. The islands that exist now will continue their march towards Alaska joining their predecessors in the mountain chain and will sink below the waves in a million years. The aloha this new island receives, and the aloha the old islands get is uncertain. It is necessary that every member of the human race understand the political, economic and ecological implications of our actions. And through open, honest exchange coupled with recognition of our past successes and mistakes, we can learn to harmonize together and be here on earth to witness these geological processes while in peace with ourselves.


End Notes

1 Ukulele is pronounced “OOH-kuh-leh-leh” by those speak the Kanaka Maoli language. The most common pronunciation is “You-koo-ley-lee” and some people call it the uke, but that can be used as a derogatory term for the instrument. Occasionally in the UK you see it spelled Ukelele.

2 From January of 2012 till August of 2015 I worked the ecommerce division of the retail company Tommy Bahama. It considers itself to be a purveyor of the island lifestyle creating floral printed camp shirts and other products that are positioned to inspire our customers to relax in style. There I worked with many Hawaiians particularly within the “Live the Life” section of the website. An area where Tommy Bahama creates the feeling of authenticity by utilizing its employees’ legitimate culture as its own. Notably for this paper is the sections on the ukulele and hula which are pages that I designed.

3 When I mention the island of Hawaii I will say the “big island” as it is referred to in Hawaii.

4 Kamehameha was impressed by much of what Captain Cook had to offer especially guns and cannon. After the encounter, Kamehameha changed the way he dressed adopting the English style and learned English. He began trading the sandalwood trees for guns and cannon with anyone who was willing and with these arms united through conquest first the Big Island and the rest of the archipelago.

5 Current theory is that it took the Polynesians about 400 years to calculate where Hawaii was. Through a feat of persistence and cultural memory year after year they followed the migration of the pacific golden plover. Rowing their canoes to keep up with the birds as long as they could and then navigating back to that spot and waiting for the birds again trying to keep up with the migration. Eventually being the first humans reaching the island chain.

6Depending on the source the Tahitians are second wave of settlers or the first conquers of Hawaii. They marked a radical change in the current culture bringing new gods and social structure to the land.

7 Kapu is a rule system similar to taboo which ruled the activity of daily life. Including laws of who could eat what, what was planted and when. The punishment for violating almost every kapu was death.

8 Reentrant tuning is a way of tuning an string instrument without maintaining an ascending or descending order.

9 (the Brittish had) “conquered [us] without the inconvenience of a conquest. . . . England has become mistress of the entire commerce of Portugal.”

Tranquada, Jim; King, John, ‘The Ukulele: A History’, (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012) pp. 18-19

11 The mnemonic frequently taught for ukulele tuning is “my dog has fleas.” It should also be pointed out that the research of the origins of the ukulele evolution through its anatomy comes from the research of Dan Scanlan, and Gisa Jähnichen. Both of these researchers reference each other, but seem to be the only ones talking about it. The other resources trace it to the machete mostly through the similarity of size.

12 ‘The gift that came here’ has grown in popularity since the 1980 publication of Ukulele, a gift of the Portuguese. “Leslie Nunes, a great-grandson of Manuel (Nunes), gave some acknowledgement to this meaning when he titled his book on the history of the ukulele Ukulele, the Gift of the Portuguese”

Scanlan, Dan, ‘Extended History of the Ukulele’, (2012) pp. 10

13 At the time US citizens could serve in the Hawai’ian government without giving up their US citizenship.

14 It was one of these granddaughters that started the research that replaced the machete with the rajao as the origin instrument in a 1989 interview with Dan Scanlan on her 104th birthday.

““Flora Fox: “I have that ukulele… but a bigger one. My grandfather was the originator of the ukulele. He made the rajaos [rezzaos]. And then from there he went to Honolulu. And the Hawaiians couldn’t play that big guitar, so, he made a small one. That was his idea.”

Jähnichen, Gisa, ‘Lies in Music: A Case Study on Qualitative Research in Ethnomusicology’, Observing – Analysing – Contextualising MUSIC. Edited by Gisa Jähnichen & Chan Cheong 2nd edition (Serdang: UPM Press, 2015 [2008])pp. 10

It should be noted that the decedents of all three cabinet makers still debate origins and level of involvement, but by 1900 Nunes was the only one who’s shop was still open and producing ukuleles.

15 The Merrie Monarch is named for King David Kalākaua was called the Merrie Monarch.

“Merrie Monarch festival” Merrie Monarch festival website.
URL: (23/03/16)

16 This is a prime example of a literal consequence of the fluid nature and flow of globalization.


Appadurai, Arjun, ‘The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective’, (Cambridge University Press, 1988)

Barthes, Rolland, ‘Mythologies’, translated by Dr. Annette Lavers (Vintage 2000, London, 2009)

Dean, Paul: Ritzer, George, ‘Globalization: A Basic Text’, 2nd Edition, (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015)

Helmreich, Stefan, ‘Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas’, (University of California Press, 2009)

Jähnichen, Gisa, ‘Lies in Music: A Case Study on Qualitative Research in Ethnomusicology’, Observing – Analysing – Contextualising MUSIC. Edited by Gisa Jähnichen & Chan Cheong 2nd edition (Serdang: UPM Press, 2015 [2008])

Scanlan, Dan, ‘Extended History of the Ukulele’, (2012)

Tranquada, Jim; King, John, ‘The Ukulele: A History’, (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012)

“The Art & History of Hula” Tommy Bahama website.
of-hula.html (23/03/16)

“Island Life 101: Ukulele Basics” Tommy Bahama website.
URL: (23/03/16)

“Merrie Monarch festival” Merrie Monarch festival website.
URL: (23/03/16)

“Merrie Monarch 2016 – Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua – Wahine Kahiko 1st Place” website.
URL: (15/04/16)

“R.E.V. Robotic Enhanced Vehicles TV Spot, ‘Hula Girl’” website.
URL: (15/04/16)

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