Not long ago, the ukulele, no more than a comic prop to accompany your lei and grass skirt, was an endangered species. Now in its third heyday, the ukulele’s powerfully cheerful sound is permeating the pop charts, serenading us during TV commercial breaks and showing up in YouTube videos by the thousands. The uke can even be heard in jam sessions on Barcelona beaches and has infiltrated some of the city’s Meetup groups.
A Brief History
Based on several small members of the guitar family, the ukulele was first developed in Hawaii during the 1880s by Portuguese immigrants. Roughly translated as “jumping flea”, the ukulele’s popularity spread to the United States in the 1920s. Thanks to the production of millions of inexpensive plastic ukuleles, their presence in popular music surged from the 1940s to the 1960s, but interest began to decline after that.
Don’t worry. There’s a comeback in our story. The ukulele reclaimed centre stage due to the enthusiasm for Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Over the Rainbow”. Since its release on the album Facing Future in 1993, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” has been heard so often on TV and in movies, young generations may not realise Israel actually redefined the beloved classic originally sung by Judy Garland.
According to the New York Times article “Ukulele Crazy” from 2011, “The trend, building for a decade and now reaching a saturation point, is being fueled by a mix of Hollywood directors, corporate advertisers, professional musicians looking for a new sound and amateurs who have discovered how easy the uke is to use”. Each group’s interest may be driven by different motivations, but they are all united in their belief that the ukulele, with its folksy sound, invokes joy and sincerity in an electronic guitar and auto-tune-obsessed age.
And why shouldn’t the ukulele be this year’s trending topic? Its dainty size makes it a great instrument to travel with. It’s easy for kids and adults alike to play. It provides players with instant satisfaction—being defined in some music circles as “idiot-proof”, anyone can learn to play in a short period of time. No matter how off tune you go, it never sounds awful because of the uke’s sweet-natured sound. Playing the uke will enlarge your circle of friends. And it makes you and those listening around you happy.
Even George Harrison was a ukulele lover, quoted as saying, “I love them—the more the merrier…So get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves”.
More recently, stars like Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson have taken up the ukulele, and its featured prominently on the TV show Glee. It’s become a habit for Zooey Deschanel to strum one while crooning sweetly with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tony Blair disrupts Labour Party conventions with one. The ukulele creates intimacy to scenes in Her and How I Met Your Mother. There’s even an eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain—originally formed as a bit of fun—that has given thousands of sold-out concerts across the world. We’ve come a long way from mocking the uke after Tiny Tim used it in his 1968 novelty song “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”.
Despite its higher profile, the ukulele still plays its role as an everyman instrument quite convincingly. “The ukulele has always fascinated me because it doesn’t intimidate other people,” said Hawaiian artist Jake Shimabukuro, whose career skyrocketed when his elaborate, introspective variation of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on a ukulele went viral on YouTube with more than 13 million views.
There’s no right or wrong way to play the ukulele, only your way. So get out there and start strumming!