Tahitian Ukulele aka Tahitian Banjo

Partially completed
Tahitian Banjo front and back
Plain Tahitian Ukulele front and back
Tahitian Ukulele
Heavily Decorated
This is not really a Ukulele but a later instrument that is derived from it and the first thing one should be aware of when thinking about them is they are not traditional instruments of Polynesia, there is no great history to them and they are not a part of any of the Polynesian cultures. It doesn't have any official scales or string lengths but it fits the sizing for a Ukulele from a small Concert to a standard Tenor, (rather like the scale of a Mandolin). It has 8 strings in 4 courses and all of the strings are tuned in unison. The tuning is reentrant but g~c~e~A so basically the same as a Ukulele but with a low A rather than a high G. this means the C and the E are tuned an octave higher than is usual for a Ukulele and gives it a high, trebbly tone.

Like most instruments, (the Ukulele is a rarity being able to trace its inception back so accurately to 1878 and the Ravenscrag), it is difficult to pin down the year of its inception but it was certainly well after WWII and probably as late as the 1990's, (I was traveling in the western Pacific in 1987 and I spent part of the time in the company of a Music Professor from the University of California - San Diego who was in the islands to collect local musical instruments for the University. I'm not saying the instrument didn't exist at this time but it certainly wasn't on his list as something to collect either professionally or personally. I never saw any on sale anywhere either - but then I didn't go to Tahiti at that time?) Prior to this the Ukulele was the widely played westernised Chordophone throughout the Pacific, (and usually only as a sop for Tourists who they thought expected it; it didn't feature in any real local culture apart from Hawaii). It probably evolved in Tahiti, though its inception could have come from any of the other islands and been brought to Tahiti as the Hub island for that part of the Pacific. It certainly came to prominence first in Tahiti after its 1995 use in a music video by Tahitian band Te Ava Piti.

Part of its popularity too, is due to the rise in long haul tourism opening this area up. The instrument is simple to make, different, and looks like it is part of the local culture, (even when it isn't), so its an ideal souvenir to sell to the new Tourists. It is usually made from a single piece of plank about 2 or 3 cm (an inch) thick, 75 cm (29½ in)long and 20cm (8 in) wide (though really for decoration purposes the wider the better). from this plank the basic shape of the instrument - body neck and headstock all together in one - is cut and then a 15cm (6 in) diameter bowl is hollowed out of the middle of the body area. This bowl is suppose to go all the way through the body and make a 5-8cm (2-3 in) hole in the back and if made nicely should include a small 5mm (¼ in) recessed lip around the edge of the front. One the bowl is carved the rest can be carved too; any decoration on the body, (sometimes extra bits are fitted to the sides to increase the size of the decoration), any neck shaping, (this is often quite rudimentary so you get a very square neck), and any throw you want to put on the headstock, (often none!). 8 holes for the tuners are drilled out and usually a set of mandolin geared tuners - 4 each side on a bar - are used. Because it is a recent invention they don't come with wooden pegs, (unless they are real cheap tourist tat), and pretty much never with friction tuners the nut. The frets and the nut are also added with the nut being particularly important as there isn't usually much throw even if the headstock has been cut down. The nut is now often a Mandolin nut as they are easily available these days, but this then leads to the neck being narrower than a standard Ukulele neck - in the past it wasn't as the nut was manufactured along with the rest of the instrument and could be any width you wanted. At the other end some kind of attaching point for the strings is also added; this can range from a proper tailpiece, through small holes drilled through the body, to 4 screws that aren't quite flush so the strings can be tied under the head.

A thin, (but not too thin as there is no bracing; and usually laminate to add to the strength) disc of wood is cut to fit neatly into the top of the bowl, put in and then usually glued tight to prevent any possible buzzing. A floating bridge is then places on the wood disk and the instrument is strung using Nylon fishing line, (30=E, 40=C and 60=G and A, pound strain - not as crude as it sounds, nylon and especially fluorocarbon fishing line can, and often is used for Ukulele strings) and you have your Tahitian Ukulele or Banjo as soundboard is a bit like the head of a Banjo and with the sound hole at the back the playing technique is similar to that of an open backed Banjolele.

While the tourist industry and what little tradition there is says it should look like a very Polynesian object it of course doesn't have to and I have see luthiers from outside of Polynesia make them in a number of other, usually electric Guitar hommage shapes. Plus there are some of the techniques of making them that have leaked back into the design of some other instruments, David Iriguchi's famous Ukulele Bass being a classic example.

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