The ukulele’s back
MUSIC RISING by Bruce Mason
• I first encountered it as a tricky word in a childhood spelling bee and was recently embarrassed when told I wasn’t saying it properly. It’s “u-k-u-l-e-l-e,” pronounced “oo-koo-le-lee,” but just plain “uke” may be music to your ears. No matter how you say it or spell it, this happy, humble, under-appreciated, much-maligned runt of the guitar family litter is the come-back kid of musical instruments. A tiny little orchestra with a big following, the ukulele is ubiquitous once again, taking star turns as a global fad, or phase. Most likely, though, it’s a full-fledged phenomena with legs and staying power. On one hand, a flight from high-tech; on the other, a virtual love child of YouTube.
Now that you can spell it and say it, know this too: You too can play it! Yes you can. You. It’s the easiest instrument to learn, according to the Guinness World Records book, thankfully replacing the plastic recorders of music education nightmares. Your child and inner child can sing along with this one to virtually every song ever made. Why, you could be strumming a carol or two before the season is out and Auld Lang Syne by New Year’s Eve.
Almost as important, you can buy a good one for the price of a smart phone. And you can take it anywhere – by backpack, bicycle, plane or on foot – even to a protest march. No need for charging batteries or untwisting headphones. Lay it on your lap or chest when you lie down to gaze skyward. Pass it on to future generations; it’s the best friend you will find in 2014.
Where to start? See Common Ground’s October issue (www.commonground.ca) and re-read Lynn McGown’s wonderfully inspiring article“ Yes, you can sing.” Substitute “play ukulele” for “sing.” Lynn approves. Personalize her poetic phrases like “self-soothing friend,” “a way to give form to my myriad emotions” and “has brought me gifts of courage, depth and presence.”
Stay online and browse u-k-u-l-e-l-e. Add your city or province. Eureka! A world beckons on-screen with music stores that stock a mind-boggling array of models and supplies, lifetimes of free video lessons and even a new online magazine, Ukulele. And new friends await in the ever-growing online clubs, groups, jams and circles, packed with fellow travellers on a musical journey.
Spend a little time on the site of the uke group nearest you. In the highly unlikely event there isn’t one, start one yourself. The Vancouver Ukulele Circle (www.vcn.bc.ca/vanukes/) is led by the local “King of the Ukulele,” Ralph Shaw. It’s the oldest ukulele club on the continent, with 600 names on its email list.
The Circle posts the following invite on its website: “Come and experience the folk music of the new millennium. Ukulele is where it’s at! You say you can’t sing and can barely play? No problem! Quality is not an issue. We do this for fun. Sing as loud and free as you like because everyone else (over 100 people) is doing the same.”
Also bookmark Ruby’s Ukes, Vancouver’s ukulele school with classes, workshops and Vancouver’s Ukulele festival (www.rubysukes.ca). As noted on the website, it’s “a haven… for all things ukulele” and was featured in the national radio doc Four Little Strings.
The ultimate must-see (and hear) website is the Langley Ukulele Ensemble at www.langleyukes.com Their motto is “enriching lives through music,” which is what they’ve been doing since a force-of-nature named Peter Luongo arrived centre-stage in 1980. He created a phenomenal legacy that includes the release of 13 recordings (demonstrating remarkable versatility), before passing the director’s uke on to his son.
LUE was featured in the charming documentary Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog. “An absolute delight,” opined famed movie critic Leonard Maltin while watching the BC ensemble tear up Flight of the Bumblebee and William Tell Overture. Alumni include virtuoso James Hill, internationally recognized as one of the finest uke players and composers on the planet and dubbed by CBC’s Stuart McLean, the “Wayne Gretzky of ukulele.”
A little history
In 1879, Portuguese immigrants arrived in Honolulu with a small-bodied, four-stringed braguinha. Islanders were enchanted and the landing made front-page news. Edward Purvis, Assistant Chamberlain to the king (Kalakaua, not Elvis) became especially adept. He was a small, energetic man, nicknamed “ukulele,” Hawaiian for “jumping flea.” Among the most enthusiastic aficionados were members of the royal family and it ascended to the Islands’ instrument of choice.
In 1915, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the relatively new US territory got a chance to strut and strum its stuff, featuring hula dancing and strumming ukuleles, igniting a really crazy craze. Companies churned ukes out; even department stores sold them. Tin Pan Alley songwriters cranked out endless uke-centred novelties, including my favourite: Oh! How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo (That’s Love in Honolulu). The romantic, carefree, highly portable and acoustic ukulele took the Hit Parade, the silver screen and the planet by storm, replete with boater hats and Hawaiian shirts.
It has surfed through whitecaps of popularity and troughs of musty comic propdom. In the 50s, folks tuned their new TVs to Arthur Godfrey and his Ukulele four nights a week with on-air lessons. Millions of plastic models – called TV Pals – were sold. These wretched toys and Tiny Tim’s novelty tune Tiptoe Through the Tulips helped put ukes down, but never TKO’d them.
Fast forward to the 90s and a much different tune. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was all over the place with his 1993 medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World especially in TV commercials soundtracks. When YouTube was created, one of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of a George Harrison (a uke devotee, himself) masterpiece While My Guitar Gently Weeps. At 12 million hits, Jake’s career was launched. Thousands of videos have followed as the low-tech uke went high-tech. Hopefully, it’s here to stay.
A few tips
Ukuleles come in four registers: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. The first is, by far, the most popular. Walk into any music store and pick up and plink the least intimidating of all instruments. For $50, you can walk out with a ukulele, picked from all sorts of sizes, colours and shapes, with a gig bag, felt pick and pitch pipe thrown in. Add a few dollars and you have a much less fickle friend for life, barring a yuckee mishap. It will be easier to tune, stay in tune longer, fret better (and we all need a friend that frets well) and outlast you and your kids. Second-hand ukes used to be for sale everywhere for a song and they still show up at yard sales now and then. Look for solid wood; a new Martin Style 5K will set you back five grand. If you’ve got one in the attic, basement or garage, dust it off and take it to a repair person to be set up and re-strung. Get uke-in’. Do you a world of good. Or put one under a tree and say “Merry Ukulele” all year, every year.
Vancouver ukulele nights
The Vancouver Ukulele Circle hosts a ukulele night on the third Tuesday of each month at St. James Hall, 3214 W. 10th Ave. @ Trutch. $8 with or without an instrument. Doors open 6:30PM. Snacks, desserts, coffee, beer and wine are sold or bring your own food. Starts 7:30PM with everyone utilizing a must-have songbook with more than 200 tunes ($15). Something similar and just as spirited and revolutionary is happening – or should be – in your community.
Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic. firstname.lastname@example.org
ukulele player photo © Morganka