The little instrument has gone from being an exotic new trend to the embodiment of kitsch since it arrived on Hawaii 125 years ago, but is currently enjoying a revival.
The instrument, with its four plastic strings and a short neck, originated in Europe and was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez jumped off the boat and started strumming and singing with his branguinha (a small guitar-like instrument, sometimes called the machete). The crowd of Hawaiians were so impressed by his fingerboard prestidigitations that they called the instrument “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.” Fernandez and the instrument became a local sensation, and the reigning monarch Kalakaua even learned how to play it. By 1900, the sound of the ukulele was ubiquitous across the Islands, where it was pronounced by Hawaiians as “oo-ku-lay-lay.”
Cutesy Hawaiian kitsch became big business. By the 1920s, Sears Roebuck and other department store catalogs offered ukes for a couple of dollars—and sometimes even for free with the purchase of lessons. Tin Pan Alley songsmiths cranked out dozens of “Hawaiian” novelty hits like “On the Beach at Waikiki,” followed by parodies of those same hits (“Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.”) Soon came an avalanche of inexpensive, mainland-made plastic ukuleles, ukulele method books like “Hum and Strum,” and “Beach Boy Method Hawaiian Style,” pandering to the appeal of faraway Hawaii as an exotic paradise. For four decades, the sounds of Hawaii drifted over the air to hundreds of radio stations.
Television offered a golden opportunity for the instrument. In 1950, the popular television host Arthur Godfrey, sporting a Hawaiian shirt, actually gave lessons to millions of viewers right in their living rooms. Plastic ukuleles proliferated— $5.95 each—and 1,700,000 ukulele players were born. Even Americans who'd never picked up an instrument couldn’t help developing a soft spot for the uke when it was played by Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, and Elvis Presley. (Blue Hawaii was Presley’s biggest box-office hit, and the soundtrack was number one on the Billboard charts for 5 months.) For a while it seemed like the ukulele had it all: a high-class reputation on the silver screen and folksy appeal as the people’s instrument.
Then came the ukepocalypse. For kids doing the Twist and rocking around the clock, the ukulele looked and sounded like a toy, compared to the thunderous electrified guitar sounds they heard from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. “If a kid has a uke in his hand, he’s not going to get in much trouble,” Arthur Godfrey had said, apparently unaware that he'd put his finger on the uke’s fatal weakness.
Then, decades later, a new generation of musicians jaded by electric guitars and mostly unaware of either the uke’s squareness or its Tiny-Tim-related disrepute began to tinker with the instrument. Beginning in the 1980s, some rock ‘n’ rollers began to introduce the ukulele—in some instances, to sound a note of folksy authenticity; in others, to explore more intimate, spontaneous and personal aspects of music making. Paul McCartney strummed one on his 2002 tour as a tribute to fellow Beatle George Harrison, a serious ukulele player and a devotee of the British music hall ukulele tradition. Harrison later gave his blessing to the ukulele revival by penning an introduction to Jumpin’ Jim (Beloff)’s 60s Uke-In Songbook: “Everybody should have and play a uke. It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh! It’s so sweet and also very old.”
The pop artists most identified with the ukulele, however are Steven Swartz of Songs From a Random House, Zach Condon of Beirut, and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. In some cases, these artists have attempted to replace the ubiquitous guitar with a sweeter and gentler sound, in others, a less familiar sound that would surprise audiences. “When you have a guitar, people are going to make judgments about what they’re going to hear, but with ukulele, the field’s open, and it’s a much more musically versatile instrument that people are aware of,” Swartz has said.
Another unexpected driving force for the ukulele was the Hawaiian music revival of the 1980s and 1990s. Hawaiian youth had previously fallen for rock just as hard as mainlanders. Local interest in the uke and traditional Island music had waned in the 1960s, and the dwindling numbers of students enrolling in Hawaii’s ukulele studios were mainly interested in learning Beatles songs. But then Hawaiian artists rediscovered the ukulele on their own terms, exploring the instrument in a new way, blurring the boundaries between Hawaiian folk and mainstream pop that had helped to marginalize the instrument.
|Kaau Crater Boys|
The ukulele, one could say, has returned from pop-culture purgatory. The eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain—composed of self-proclaimed “anarcho-syndicalists of the ukulele world”—draws sellout crowds with an eclectic repertoire ranging from the Sex Pistols and Nirvana to Bach and Beethoven. The modern Canadian movement, with deeper pedagogical roots than either Britain’s or America's, thrives thanks to school-based programs that advocate using the ukulele to teach music. The Langley Ukulele Ensemble, made up of high-school artists in British Columbia, has nurtured such luminaries as award-winning artist/ukulele advocate James Hill. And few nations have more rabid fans than Japan, where Shimabukuro spends half of the year touring and where members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain get stopped on the street to sign autographs.
|Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain|
Because of its accessibility, the uke has managed to attract the huge grassroots following it struggled to draw before the Internet hooked up players and enabled Uke Meetups, jam sessions, and YouTube uke tutorials. Marcy Marxer, two-time Grammy-award winning folk artist who performs on ukulele and other string instruments with her partner Cathy Fink, says that what makes the uke so popular now "is the friendliness of the community. There’s no hierarchy of advanced players, just wide-open acceptance. Since so many people are new to the instrument, they remember what it was like to be a beginner.”
|Stuart “Stukulele” Fuchs|