Ukulele: the world's happiest instrument

by Stephanie Miller
June 2008

They’re not your grandfather’s ukuleles! People of all ages are pulling the little four-string beauties out of stuffy attics and jumbled closets, trying to figure out what to do with these relics of a bygone era. Well, it turns out the era is coming right back at us.

Ukulele players, like Zach Hanner of the hip, local Hawaiian band Da Howlies, are going retro acoustic. And 20-something Jake Shimabukuro, the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele universe — who coaxes unimaginable sounds out of a ukulele, including a haunting version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps — is getting gigs all over the world.

Both Hanner and Shimabukuro are inspiring a new crop of young people who are picking up the funky instrument and in the process making it sing. These new players generally know nothing of the famous ukulele players of the past — Tiny Tim and Arthur Godfrey, to name two — and look nothing like them, either. They are as young as 3- and 4-year-olds and look like budding rock stars, strumming red, purple and green ukuleles at the North Carolina Ukulele Academy on Racine Drive.

"It’s the least intimidating instrument you can make out of wood," says Kent Knorr, owner of the Ukulele Academy. Give someone a four-string, lightweight ukulele and they’re off and running. Start them on a guitar and you may end up with a frustrated musician, says Knorr. Small hands can’t fit around the larger instrument and the steel strings are hard to press.

Kids aren’t the only ones looking for a more simple path to making music. A technician in his 40s came into the academy’s store during his lunch break. "I’m the man," says Tony Denney, grinning. "I picked up the ukulele two weeks ago, and I’m (already) playing it."

And then there’s Jackie Wilder, a retiree looking forward to her first academy class. "Frustrated musicians at home can now become happy musicians at home with their music." She adds gleefully, "Don’t we all want to sing and play?"

What’s causing the resurgence of this diminutive darling? There’s the ease of playing a four-stringed instrument, for one thing. With three simple chords, you can play close to 500 songs. Hanner echoes an old refrain, "You can play any song with three chords and the truth!"

Then there’s the size of the thing: It’s small and that makes it easy to hold even for kid-sized hands. And its portability makes it a great companion on the road. One young visitor to the academy plans to stick a uke in his backpack for his upcoming trip to Costa Rica. Knorr brings his ukulele along to the carwash and strums away while his car gets cleaned. "If you bring a guitar," he laughs, "it looks like you’re moving in!"

The smallest ukulele you can own is the soprano ukulele. The next size up is the tenor, followed by the concert and baritone ukuleles.

And don’t forget its good looks. The bright colors on the children’s Mahalo ukuleles make them irresistible to youngsters, while the beautiful woods of curly mango, Indian rosewood, cedar and Hawaiian koa do the same for grown-ups. Hanner is particularly fond of his concert ukulele made of ovankol wood, which is blond with dark stripes.

The ukulele is a natural for a beach community. Its easy, light sound reminds us of its Hawaiian roots and feels right for our sunny, surfing culture. As proof, the Swagerty Kook-A-La-Lee has an extra long neck designed to stick in the sand before the surfer hits the waves. Want to take one on the surfboard? There’s a Surf-a-lele just right for the occasion.

The ukulele was not actually born in Hawaii but was an import from Portugal in the late 1800s. The Hawaiians gave it its name because it reminded them of "jumping fleas" — fingers jumping over the fretboard to make the happy tunes. Uku translates as flea and lele means jump. Mainlanders saw it for the first time in 1915 at the Pan Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, a celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal.

Americans loved the Hawaiian tunes and added English lyrics, giving rise to hapa-haole songs, half Hawaiian, half English versions of the ukulele music. Jazz musicians gave a boost to the hapa-haole tunes when they traveled to Hawaii in the 1930s and ’40s, as Hawaii came into its own as a tourist destination.

In the 1960s, the ukulele took a nosedive with Tiny Tim as its champion. His eerie rendition of Tiptoe Through the Tulips is a part of the ’60s culture many people would like to forget.

The ukulele fell off the radar screen completely until nearly 15 years ago, when artists like Hawaii’s Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole resuscitated the instrument. Kamakawiwo’ole went on to become an international star. His album Facing Future transformed songs like Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World into commercial successes in films, television and commercials. His blend of jazz and reggae gave artists an inkling of the range of the small but mighty ukulele. Many artists since have taken the ukulele in search of other musical genres. The sky seems to be the limit.

Whatever the limit, the ukulele reigns as the "world’s happiest instrument," laughs Hanner. "Steve Martin used to say you couldn’t sing a sad song on the banjo. Imagine singing ‘pestilence, suffering, pain’ on that instrument," he says. To Hanner and many others, the same is true for the ukulele. Its light-hearted, breezy sound is reminiscent of waves lapping the shore and star-filled nights. Perfect, when you think about it, for Wrightsville Beach.

 


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