Early Portuguese Coconut Ukulele recreation
This is the kind of project I really enjoy these days. My historical research learning about the lives of early 19th and early 20th century musicians really makes projects that have historical significance a thrill to work on. Timothy Rajkowski grew up in Kailua, the town I am fortunate to call my home here on the island of Oahu. He approached me with this project that had great meaning to him, Tim is the family historian and geneologist as well as a member of the local Portuguese Historical Society . Tim is descended from Portuguese/Madeiran ancestors who came to the Hawaii like so many of thier country men and women seeking a better life in the then kingdom. Tim's grandfather, "Agostinho de Freitas e Abreu" was a cabinet maker to the royal family of Madeira and arrived in Maui, just before the turn of the last century. Initially working in the sugar industries cane fields, Agostinho managed to find time to build instruments for his grandaughter "Charlotte" (see photo), of which this coconut Uke was the first.
Agostinho's story mirrors that of the three most famous early stringed instrument makers to come from Madeira to Hawaii: "Augusto Dias", "Manuel Nunes", and "Jose Do Espiritu Santo", all of whom arrived to Hawaii in 1879 on a boat named the "Ravenscrag". While traveling from Madiera today would be a relatively easy jump over oceans and continents on a few airplanes, in 1879 the journey took an arduous and cramped 3 months sailing around the southern tip of south America and up the coast before sailing west to the kingdom of Hawaii. Many cite the arrival of the Ravenscrag as the first introduction of the small Portuguese stringed instrument known as the "Machete", the acknowledged ancestor to the Hawaiian Ukulele. I believe the many Portuguese and Madeiran residents of the Hawaiian kingdom, numbering over 400 according to the Hawaiian census of 1878 likely had brought with them a diversity of stringed instruments, which likely included Machetes, Braguinhas, Rajaos and Portuguese guitars.
While I have never spent a day in the tropics cutting sugar cane, I can imagine the wear and tear on ones hands and fingers after weeks, months and years cutting and processing this tough and grass like plant. The realization that these craftsmen all arrived here and spent the first 3-4 years working on sugar plantations before setting up shops building some of the smallest and most intricate stringed instruments in the world only adds to my great respect for them.
The inlay in this coconut Uke is all hand cut by Tim's grandfather, I worked solely from photographs as the original was unavailable for study. I cut in Maple and Ebony with Tagua nut (nut ivory) accents for the replica. One of the most interesting features is the profile of Abraham Lincoln for the soundhole shape. Mr. Lincoln was according to Tim one of Agostinho's heroes.