Gods of Uke: Ernest Ka’ai, a Pioneering Ukulele Virtuoso, Composer, and Author


The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco is generally regarded as the event that first brought the ukulele to the mainland United States in a meaningful way. But the instrument made a prescient appearance several years earlier, when Ernest Ka’ai played at the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Exposition in Seattle.

Ka’ai was born in Honolulu in 1881. A brilliant, self-taught multi-instrumentalist, he played mandolin, guitar, steel guitar, and violin equally well. But he’s most celebrated as a prodigiously gifted ukulele player—to whom all modern players, whether or not they know it, owe a large debt. Jim Tranquada, coauthor of The Ukulele: A History, says, “Ka’ai was a pioneering virtuoso who insisted on treating the ukulele as a solo instrument, not only in Hawaiian music but in everything from pop music to classical to jazz.

“While there were other great ukulele players of his era—George Kia Nahaolelua, for example— Ka’ai’s impact was magnified by his influence as an influential teacher, music publisher, composer, arranger, entrepreneur, and impresario,” he continues. “He also was not shy: As early as 1907, he was marketing himself as ‘conductor of the best Glee-Club in the Islands, Authority on Hawaiian Music, and Concert Soloist.’”


Ernest Ka'ai's book The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It
Ernest Ka’ai’s book The Ukulele: A Hawaiian Guitar and How to Play It is widely considered the first ukulele instruction book.

These days, there’s an incalculable number of resources for teaching and learning ukulele in all manner of styles. But this wasn’t the case in 1906, when Ka’ai authored what was essentially the instrument’s first method book, establishing common technical and notational practices for the uke. The book, Tranquada says, is “often imitated and frequently plagiarized. It established C tuning as standard, provided chord diagrams, and sold the ukulele as a serious solo instrument.” In a second method, The Ukulele and How It’s Played (1916), Ka’ai broke down how to approach a variety of rhythmic strokes, like the waltz and the rag, presenting them carefully in increasingly complex patterns. He also promoted Hawaiian tunes through sheet music, song collections, and even mail-order lessons—not just for ukulele but also for guitar and steel guitar.

“Ka’ai defined what Hawaiian music was and how the ukulele was played to vast new audiences.”

Around the same time, Ka’ai was involved in the instrument-making business. He started the Ka’ai Ukulele Manufacturing Company in 1909, but sold the company in 1917 and set his scopes beyond the United States. He sparked a global interest in the ukulele—and in Hawaiian music in general—when he toured Australia and the Far East in the 1920s and ’30s. “Ka’ai defined what Hawaiian music was and how the ukulele was played to vast new audiences,” Tranquada says. “He was no purist, however—his shows of the 1920s routinely featured both Hawaiian music and hot jazz.”

Indeed, contemporary popular music featured into Ka’ai’s treatment of the ukulele and of Hawaiian music in general. This can be seen in a miniature solo composition like the 16-bar “Haele,” [Click here for the the music.] with its jazzy harmonies and lilting rhythms, printed here in notation. Among the most well-known other songs that showcase Ka’ai’s original approach to Hawaiian music are “Across the Sea” (composed with Ray Kinney) and “Pu’uwa’awa’a” (with Mary Low), both of which have received a good handful of covers.

Ernest Ka'ai with an early Gibson mandolin
Ka’ai with an early Gibson mandolin.

Ka’ai had plans to build a “Hawaiian Village” in Shanghai when, in 1937, Japan attacked China. By the early 1940s, Ka’ai and his family had settled in Florida, where he opened a studio and music shop and occasionally performed for the remaining two decades of his life. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have a chance to meet him. He died in Miami Springs in 1962, when I was a five-year-old in LA,” Tranquada says, adding that, in light of Ka’ai’s many important accomplishments, “I don’t think he’s received all the credit that he deserves.”

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Ukulele magazine.