How many uke players can fit on one stage?
_Let's Uke Together
Groups exist around the world.
_Making Waves on
Three waves of uke popularity wash over the United States.
The uke arrives in Hawaii.
_Are Uke Experienced?
On a cold, dreary January night in Eugene, Oregon, the interior of a local church feels like Waikiki. Or rather, sounds like Waikiki. E huli, e huli mâkou. E huli, e huli mâkou. Kou maka, kou lima, me kou kino e. Ke aloha. Thirty people sit in a circle strumming on ukuleles and singing with abandon. A gray–haired woman wearing a navy blue cardigan plays and sings quietly. A seven year old with stickers plastered on her face bounces enthusiastically on the couch while twanging the strings with her small fingers. A twenty–something woman whoops for joy as she masters a more complicated chord change. Several experienced musicians strum along looking bored — the simple folk songs far below their talent level.
"Okay, wait, wait!" exclaims Brook Adams, co–founder of the Ukulaneys, Eugene's new ukulele club. "I want to pause for a second so we can all revel in the grooviness of these darn things." Dressed casually but wearing a top hat, he holds his pistachio–colored ukulele out in front of him and everyone else follows suit. They ooh and aah at the variety of colors, shapes and sizes of the instruments: leopard print, bright red, traditional wood with palm tree stickers spattered on the front and tiny plastic hula dancers hanging from the tuning heads. After an adequate moment of admiration, it is time for another song.
Ukulele clubs like the Ukulaneys are popping up in communities worldwide, particularly in the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Japan. In music stores and church basements around the United States, people young and old — from punk rockers to retirees— strum the diminutive instrument. People seem to gravitate toward the whimsical flavor of the serious instrument to have fun and socialize. The player directory on Flea Market Music's Web site currently lists more than 700 players in the United States, one hundred players abroad and fifty uke groups nationwide. The lists continue to grow everyday.
Uke fanatics gather annually at festivals to celebrate the petite instruments with big personalities. This year, festivals will take place in locations like Santa Cruz, California; Portage La Prairie, Manitoba; Bushkill, Pennsylvania; and Indianapolis, Indiana. Flea Market Music, one of the leading online ukulele companies, sold more than 3,000 ukuleles last year. Flea Market Music has cumulatively sold more than 150,000 copies of its Jumpin' Jim series of ukulele books.
Why the tsunami of ukulele popularity? Some people believe that closet uke players have always existed and the Internet is merely giving them a way to unite. Others believe that celebrity endorsements are influencing its popularity. The Beatles' George Harrison loved the ukulele. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder uses it to write his songs; "Soon Forget" from the band's album Binaural features an acoustic ukulele. Even the late, great Jimi Hendrix first learned to play the ukulele before moving on to the guitar.
Adams has a theory of his own. "The ukulele is a cute little thing that you can just hold in your hand and play. It's a little bright thing in a time that's pretty turbulent." A common mantra in the uke community is: You cannot be grim and play the ukulele. When times get tough, pull out the ukulele, and you cannot help but smile.
"I want to pause for a second so we can
all revel in the grooviness of these darn things."
The ukulele has only four strings, compared to the standard guitar's six, but the plucking and strumming skills learned on the guitar can be easily transferred to the ukulele — or vice versa. The ukulele's small size and soft nylon strings make it a good starting point for kids who want to learn an instrument. Adults like it because it does not take much time or energy. A couple of chords easily translate into hundreds of songs. Plus it is portable: backpackers can strap it to their rucksacks, street performers can easily set up on a busy street corner and travelers can fit it in the overhead compartment on an airplane.
The ukulele could be considered the "un–guitar." Serious and amateur players alike find the uke to be a breath of fresh air in a music world saturated with guitar players. "If you want to get recognized, the uke is a nice alternative," says Jim Beloff, owner of Flea Market Music and uke guru. After thirty years of playing the guitar, Beloff remembers finding a ukulele at a Los Angeles flea market. "Within a week of picking up my first ukulele I had become consumed," he says. "I haven't played the guitar since." That was twelve years ago.
Many musicians do not see the ukulele's simplicity as a downgrade from the guitar. Instead it provides them with an alternative way to express themselves through music. Michael Simmons, co–editor of the magazine The Ukulele Occasional, says that musicians like the uke because it can be adapted to all different styles. "Some people play Hawaiian music. Some play early styles from the 1920s and 1930s. Some musicians create their own music. And some people like it for the kitsch value."
Some people even take up the ukulele as a kind of "screw you, guitar establishment" statement. Punk rockers have been known to electrify the uke. Filmmakers William Preston Robertson and Sean Anderson explored this trend in a documentary, Rock that Uke, narrated by Holly Hunter. "Many of those now taking up the instrument were weaned on punk music and have incorporated the ukulele not just into their raucous and irreverent original compositions, but into a counter–cultural, post–punk ethos," says the documentary's tagline. In other words, people are plugging in their ukes to make a statement.
People who play the ukulele seem to have a good sense of humor about themselves, their music and about life. The uke, in and of itself, is a contradiction. It is a serious instrument with a playful attitude. But it is even more than that: as the directors of Rock that Uke say, "It's more than a tiny musical instrument…it's a state of mind."