Ukulele love: The little four-string is freshly popular and adored by enthusiasts
The ideal instrument for almost anyone
May 15, 2011 8:00 AM
John Heller / Post-Gazette
MeeLi Lee-Jones, of Mt. Washington, a member of a group of senior women who take ukulele lessons at CMU.
John Heller / Post-Gazette
Jayne Keffer, left, and Elizabeth Gordon, members of a group of senior women who take ukulele lessons at CMU.
By Marlene Parrish Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
I play the ukulele. That's not funny.
I'm in good company. Check out old movie clips on YouTube. Elvis plays a ukulele in "Blue Hawaii," Steve Martin serenades Bernadette Peters with "Tonight You Belong to Me" in "The Jerk" and Bette Midler plinks "The Glory of Love" in "Beaches."
Uke celebrity appearances used to be few and far between. But today, the uke is having a resurgence. Professional ukulele players (no, that's not an oxymoron) make videos that go viral, and ukulele is that happy sound you can't quite put a finger on in hundreds of television commercials. It's more than a fad, and it seems to be more than a trend. What's up with today's ukulele?
Thanks to social media, the ukulele is hot. It's cross-generational. It's important. Don't believe it? Do a quick Google search for YouTube. Hear Israel "Bruddah Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole's wistful rendition of "Over the Rainbow." Watch James Hill's "One note samba." Hear a performance of The London Ukulele Orchestra.
There's a lot of power coming from a lightweight, four-string, two octave instrument.
In 1879, a Portuguese boat chugged into Hawaii's Honolulu harbor. It was filled with immigrants from the island of Madeira. Once down the gangplank, one of the arrivals, Joao Fernandez, an enterprising busker it seems, began playing an instrument called a "braguinha," performing for anyone who'd listen. The islanders were mesmerized by its light, sweet sound. Give or take a few years while they fiddled with the design, the Hawaiians soon adopted it as their own. But no way were they going to pronounce its Portuguese moniker. They renamed it "ukulele" the Hawaiian word for "jumping flea," because that's what it looks like when a player's fingers jump all over the fretboard.
Manuel Nunes, another Madeiran, had a key role in transforming the braguinha into the uke we know today. A musical craftsman, he swapped gut strings for steel and tinkered with the tuning of the strings for easier chord formation. Most important, he found that the indigenous Hawaiian koa tree produced a wood that was light and resonant. For perspective, the lute is to the guitar as the Portuguese "braguinha" is to the present day uke.
Mildred Nunes, granddaughter of Manuel Nunes, was the principal of Christ the King School in Seattle when Mike Lynch first started teaching there. Mr. Lynch is a music educator, multi-instrument musician and composer. "About 10 years ago, I began teaching ukulele in my classes," he says. "I feel I'm passing down a legacy to my students."
Besides his pre-school through eighth grade music classes at the school, Mr. Lynch has his own YouTube channel where his nom de musique is Ukulele Mike.
"About three years ago, I put ukulele teaching videos up on our school website so my students could practice at home," he says. "Parents didn't believe it when the kids kept pestering them to turn on YouTube so they could practice with Mr. Lynch." The concept grew. Now Mr. Lynch has hundreds of video tutorials, most of them under five minutes long.
"Ukulele is an ideal instrument for anyone, not just for the school curriculum," says Mr. Lynch. "It's small, portable, economical and social. Because the uke is meant to accompany singing, it's most often played in or with a group. And the sound is so fresh and sweet. In many countries -- Canada, the U.K., New Zealand -- schools are turning to ukulele to replace the recorder."
Chalmers Doane was the newly appointed director of music education in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1967. Mr. Doane chose to teach the ukulele in the classroom because, he said, "it is an instrument that fosters music literacy that is fun to play, inexpensive and suits all kinds of music." In much of Canada, the uke is used as a way to teach elementary school students the basics of music.
Fast forward 40 years. James Hill, one of the best known serious ukulele players in the world, is a graduate of the Doane ukulele program.
Uke frenzy spreads
When Lanialoha Lee walks into her ukulele classes at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, you get a lesson in Hawaiian culture along with the power strums of the Pacific islands. In her deep, mellow voice, she says, "I was born with this music. It's my heritage and my passion. The ukulele is the symbol of Hawaii to people all over the world."
Eighty to 100 students pass through her classes every eight weeks. The school acts as a feeder program to her own nonprofit Hawaiian cultural operation.
Ted Parrish has played ukulele for 17 years, and while he taught guitar and banjo at the Old Town School of Folk Music, he played the uke in Ms. Lanialoha's band for 10 years. He and his wife Catherine own Parrish Music, a store in the tiny town of Viroqua, Wis. Full disclosure: Ted is my son.
"It's easy to make music, and it's easy to get to a level of satisfaction," Mr. Parrish says. "I see older adults who once played guitar, now switching to the uke because they don't want to handle the six-string keyboard anymore. And other adults who have never played any musical instrument are picking it up. If a beginner wants to buy or mail-order a uke, we first have a consultation, noting the person's height, weight and the shape and size of their hands. We ask if they are in a class and what kind of music they like. Then we match a uke to fit the person from our stock of five brands and 30 models."
You do get what you pay for, Mr. Parrish says. A cheap uke is a toy that won't hold its tuning, doesn't play easily and will discourage the player.
For my birthday, he gave me a bright red Kala soprano uke. In the eight months since, I have taken lessons, played with a group, had music buddies and have laughed a lot more than I used to.
I've become a ukeholic.
Ebbs and flows
Ukes have been kicking around under the radar, mostly as a novelty or folk instrument. But there have been four distinct surges in its popularity.
• In the '20s and '30s, a Hawaiian craze swept the country, thanks to the pineapple. Seriously. The fruit was introduced to Hawaii around 1770, but commercial cultivation didn't begin until the 1880s when steamships made transporting the perishable whole fruit possible. In 1903, Jim Dole began canning pineapple, making it easily accessible worldwide. The Dole Hawaiian Pineapple Co. was a booming business by 1921, making pineapple Hawaii's largest crop and industry. The ukulele jumped on the Hawaiian spotlight and piggybacked around the world, too. Today, the uke is huge in Japan, Great Britain, New Zealand and Canada.
• George Burns had his cigar. Jack Benny his violin. Arthur Godfrey had his ukulele. For readers under 60, Godfrey was a radio personality for almost 20 years before becoming one of the biggest stars of the early days of television. He learned to play ukulele from a Hawaiian shipmate while he was in the Navy. Godfrey wasn't much of a singer and he was no virtuoso, but he was wildly popular and a master salesman. He is credited with nearly single-handedly creating the huge wave of ukulele popularity that occurred around the early 1950s. Then, poof, he was gone.
• I say, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," you say, "Tiny Tim." Herbert Khaury, Tiny Tim's real name, accompanied himself on the uke as he sang that tune in his distinctive falsetto singing style with its pulsating vibrato. "Tiny" and his ukulele appeared on Rowan and Martin's "Laugh-In" and the Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and Johnny Carson shows. Mr. Khaury was a talented musician who had a wide knowledge of early American songs, but his performance persona killed ukulele for an entire generation. Maybe two.
• The Beatles grew up with the music of great Lancashire comedian George Formby, whose banjo ukulele was a big part of his appeal. Although George Harrison is best known for his guitar playing, he was also a great ukulele player. His love of the uke kicked off a fourth surge in its popularity around 2000. Mr. Harrison is shown holding a ukulele on one of his album jackets and confessed his love for the uke in various interviews. He even played the instrument on the Beatles Anthology album bringing thousands more players to the uke. Still the uke wasn't considered a serious musical instrument. Until now.
These days there are ukulele groups and meet-ups all over the United States -- St. Louis; Berkeley, Calif.; Portland, Ann Arbor, Mich.; Durham, N.C.; Phoenix and more.
"We started as a small group of rabid uke players who wanted to play on a regular basis," says John Leder, a teacher, charter member and leader of the Seattle Ukulele Players Association.
"Our biggest music store hosted a monthly song circle until we outgrew the space. Eight years later, we are a nonprofit association, and we have 50 to 80 players at each session. We play old and new songs and invite the audience to sing along. Most of the regulars are in their 20s, but ages range from 10 to way over 70."
So why not Pittsburgh? And you?
In the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner hears a voice say, "if you build it they will come." So he builds a ball field, and players come.
I hear voices, too. (No smart remarks, please.) The voice says, "Build a band of ukulele players to get together to sing and strum."
If there were such a group, I bet you would come. And couldn't we have a good time?