Banished to back porches and parlours, ‘B’ grade Hawaiian flicks, comedy shows and toy shops for decades, the humble ukulele has become hip again. More than a century after its golden era, the “jumping flea” is enjoying a Second Coming around the planet, and Australia is among the countries bitten by the bug.
In one of the most intriguing music phenomena of recent years, the long derided tiny four-string instrument, formerly associated with novelty/music hall acts like Tiny Tim and George Formby, now boasts its own equivalent of guitar gods. Stunning virtuosos such as Canadian James Hill and Hawaiian Daniel Ho, who toured Australia in July. Festivals dedicated to ukuleles are mushrooming, uke clubs and weekly jam sessions are flourishing and sales of the instrument are going through the roof. In Britain, there’s reportedly a nationwide shortage, while American luthiers are apparently struggling to match demand. In primary schools, the uke is even superseding the time-honoured recorder as kiddies’ starting instrument of choice.
Late 19th century Hawaiians were the first to succumb to the ukulele’s charms. The instrument arrived in the North Pacific islands via sugarcane workers from the Portuguese island of Madeira. Ukes quickly captivated the Hawaiian royal court, and within a decade were embedded in local culture. Its popularity spread to the American mainland.
From the 1920s to the early 1950s, it was the most popular instrument in U.S. homes and featured in countless films and Broadway musicals. Then, with the rise of electric guitar and rock ‘n’ roll, it vanished into virtual obscurity, consigned to toy baskets … until American music historian Jim Beloff’s popular series of uke songbooks and Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow helped kickstart a revival in the mid-1990s that is still gathering momentum. The resurgence, appropriately, happened in Hawaii, before winding its way to Japan and then the rest of the world.
Now ukuleles are wielded by punks in preference to electric guitars, provide a backdrop to pop singles, and are played by serious classical, jazz, folk and other roots musicians at myriad ukulele festivals, staged from New York to Tokyo. In the UK, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain hit the charts with covers of Sex Pistols and Nirvana songs.
Jake Shimabukuro’s You Tube clip of the Beatles’ ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ has scored in excess of five million hits (coincidentally, the song’s creator, George Harrison, was a self-confessed uke-o-holic, who allegedly parted with thousands of pounds for one of George Formby’s instruments). Shimabukuro slew all who saw him on his Australian debut at the Byron Bay Bluesfest a couple of years ago. James Hill, who has taken over the Hawaiian’s mantle as the go-to “uke man”, and Shimabukuro’s compatriot Daniel Ho wowed concertgoers at the inaugural Cairns Ukulele Festival in July. Both acknowledge the instrument’s spectacular resurgence in popularity and its broad community appeal.
“The recent surge is partly due to challenging economic times,” offers multi Grammy Award winner Ho by way of an explanation. “The ukulele is a happy and inexpensive instrument that brings joy to players and audiences.” As he observes: “It’s hard to listen to a ukulele and be sad … it is also one of the easiest instruments to learn, and is one of the most portable.” Hill concurs: “It’s a social instrument by nature and it’s contagious by nature, too. If you don’t enjoy making friends, sitting around and strumming with others, and if you don’t like laughter, camaraderie and good vibes then you should avoid ukulele like the plague,” he laughs. The lanky Canadian, who has been described as the “Paganini of ukulele”, also believes that people are getting tired of playing a passive role in the music industry. “We’ve been consuming for so long. The ukulele gives people a chance to rediscover the joy of music self-made. It’s a delightfully lo-fi counterpoint to all this high-tech gadgetry that promises to make life better but really just clutters it up.”
Musicologist, academic and long-time ukulele devotee Dr Karl Neuenfeldt, of Central Queensland University, stresses that it’s important to remember that the instrument is a point of contact and commonality for legions of “hummers and strummers” as well as a showcase for virtuosos like Hill and Ho. “For amateur performance, most people can learn a C, F and G chord on a ukulele and thus happily strum along and entertain at least themselves with the numerous songs in the ukulele repertoire, such as Pearly Shells. In some ways it’s the instrument with which one can do the least damage musically, but one whose very simplicity encourages a more engaged and less mediated engagement with music and music-making. Put in even more simple terms, uke makes people smile and that is surely a great antidote for the sonic hustle and bustle of modern life.”
Daniel Ho raves about the bonhomie he encountered on his previous visit to Australia, in 2005, when he performed at Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island Festival and conducted workshops in Sydney and Melbourne. “One of the happiest gatherings I can recall was a ukulele club meeting in Melbourne led by Rose Ertle. Thirty of us were playing and singing ‘Dancing Queen’.”
James Hill, whose family is from New Zealand, made his first trip to Australia, exclusively to headline the Cairns Ukulele Festival on the first weekend in July. While they nominate the Ukulele Picnic in Japan and the Portland Ukulele Festival in Oregon as the premier events of their type in the world at present — notwithstanding the Ukulele World Congress in Indiana, Canada’s International Ukulele Ceilidh, Tokyo’s Ukulele Superjam, the New York and London Ukulele Festivals and Waikiki’s long-running Ukulele Festival — Ho and Hill acknowledge the Cairns Ukulele Festival as one of the most significant uke shindigs to be staged in the southern hemisphere thus far.
When Cairns Ukulele Festival hosts, the Cairns Ukulele Club, held their first meeting on April 1 2008, many locals thought it was an April Fool’s joke, but its convener, Gaby Thomasz — co-ordinator of the inaugural Cairns ukefest — was deadly serious. Music City, the store she manages in the city’s main drag, Sheridan Street, now boasts one of the biggest selections of ukuleles in the land. “The ukulele suits our tropical lifestyle,” she observes. “The aim of the club and the festival is to get as many people as possible together making music and having fun. It’s not about how good you are — all you have to do is bring a uke along and a smile and lots of aloha. The great thing about uke clubs is that they are for people of all ages, from all walks of life.” To prove the point, Thomasz is organized a world record bid during the uke fest, which garnered nearly 700 participants performing ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ simultaneously.
Australia’s top-ranked ukulele player, Azo Bell, who initially piqued Gaby Thomasz’s interest, came to the instrument by the back door. The leader of popular Byron Bay act the Old Spice Boys heard cavaquinho when he toured Europe as musical director for a theatre company back in the early ‘90s, and that was the genesis of his love affair with ukulele. “Cavaquinho is the modern version of the Portuguese instrument, the braguinha, and they’re the instruments that led to the development of the ukulele in Hawaii about 150 year ago,” he explains. “The charango from the Andes is also related to the ukulele and so is the Latin American cuatro. There’s ukulele all over the Pacific region, from Timor right across, though the design’s a bit different in Tahiti. There’s a lot of ukulele music coming out of West Papua and New Guinea.”
Bell might also have included the Top End of Australia, especially the Torres Strait, from where Seaman Dan, who came out of retirement to perform at the Cairns ukulelefest, has netted two ARIA Awards (the Australian equivalent of Grammy Awards) with albums featuring ukulele. From Northern Territory, Skinnyfish Music, the boutique label that has enjoyed phenomenal success with Gurrumul, Gurrumul Yunupingu’s debut solo album worldwide is now beginning to make waves with a Kriol version of Waltzing Matilda (Waltjim Bat Matilda) recorded by Ali Mills (Ali Mills), an inveterate Aboriginal ukulele player and singer.
Rose “Turtle” Ertler, a Melbourne singer-songwriter who also performed at the Cairns Ukulele Festival, is another Australian on a mission to show that ukulele is not just a novelty, but an instrument capable of producing serious music. When she’s not touring or working part-time as a music therapist, Ertler organizes events such as Sydney’s ukulele Land. She’s also written a book entitled: What Do Ukulele Players Eat? Ertler fell in love with the instrument a decade ago while scaling down her possessions in preparation for an overseas’ trip. “I had the idea that if I plugged it into an effects’ pedal, maybe it could sound like an electric guitar, maybe even a double bass. Then I wouldn’t have to cart around lots of equipment.”
James Hill also strives to extend the instrument’s parameters through experimentation, although he concedes he has yet to play Ukulear Meltdown, a rock ukulele festival in the UK. “I love music but my first love is sound. I never wear an iPod; I’m much too fascinated by everyday sounds and sonic landscapes. I’d say some of my experimental work could be called ‘sound sculpture’. The experimental ukulele stuff I play has a polarizing effect on adults — they either love it or they just hate it — but it appeals almost universally to children.”
Hill, who’s now in his late 20s, started playing ukulele at nine years of age like the rest of his classmates in Langley, British Columbia, and by the time he was 12 he was touring with a local ensemble. “It’s part of the school curriculum there and has been for decades. I was really lucky to grow up in a town that supported ukulele and believed in it as a vehicle for music education. I had no idea at the time just how lucky we were. That was 20 years ago and I’m still learning new things every day.”
While Daniel Ho, who’s in his early 40s, started when he was in second grade, he maintains he’s still not proficient at it, despite the contradictory evidence provided by a string of awards. “ukulele was my first instrument, but when I was nine, I studied classical guitar for five years. That provided the formal fingerstyle training I use to play ukulele and slack key guitar. I primarily play fingerstyle ukulele and don’t strum very much.” For the last couple of years, he’s been working on a right-hand fingerstyle technique that he says has helped him improve his speed and consistency.” By contrast, Hill has developed a signature “mono strum” in which he strums all of the strings, but only sounds one note.
Hill has been in such demand around the world in the past few years that he’s lost track of just how many countries he’s visited and how many ukulele festivals he’s played. “I often have to check my own website to see where I’m going next. Recently I’ve been from one side of North America to the other, Hawaii, Singapore, Sweden, Italy, Japan, New Zealand … the list goes on.” He sees getting more bookings at general music festivals these days as a barometer of his instrument’s burgeoning status. “There’s more and more of that kind of thing as the ukulele starts to cross over into other genres. My latest album, True Love Don’t Weep — a duet album with my partner, cellist/singer Anne Davison [who’ll be performing with Hill at the Cairns ukefest] won ‘Traditional Album of the Year’ at last year’s Canadian Folk Music Awards. It was a surprise but I think it shows that the instrument is making its way into deeper musical waters than ever before.”
Like Azo Bell, who joined them in Cairns, Hill and Ho have astonishingly eclectic tastes and influences. Ho draws from acoustic rock, jazz and classical styles and names the Beatles, BeeGees, Dave Grusin, James Taylor, Beethoven and Billy Joel as some of his favourite artists. Hill cites Glenn Gould, Stevie Wonder, Mark O’Connor, Victor Borge, Daft Punk and John Cage among myriad influences. Like Bell, he’s adept at playing everything from classical tunes to jazz, blues, bluegrass, ragtime and Celtic folk.
Both Hill and Ho are heavily involved in teaching and will be conducting beginners and master classes as part of their upcoming visit to Australia. Hill has been working for the past seven years on developing a comprehensive ukulele curriculum for schoolteachers and self-learners. “The ukulele in the Classroom’ series is helping teachers all over the world to use ukulele as an effective platform for music literacy and education. What happens all too often is that a teacher will catch the ukulele bug and become really excited about teaching ukulele but before long the nuts and bolts of planning and running a successful ukulele program become overwhelming.
Enthusiasm will get you off the ground but it won’t sustain a program over the long-term. Enthusiasm mixed with good teaching resources can be dynamite.” Ho has co-authored beginners and intermediate ukulele instructional books with Herb Ohta, Jr. He recently finished a new work called Polani – Fingerstyle ukulele, which contains all the songs from his latest solo ukulele CD, Polani, written in tablature and notation.
Along with the ukulele revival has also come a spate of new manufacturers like Kala, Lanikai, Hilo, G-string and Koaloha to challenge classic 20th century ukulele makers such as Kamaka, Martin, Gibson, and National. Daniel Ho uses a custom curly koa 4-string KoAloha that Paul Okami built for all his recordings and performances. “It has a beautiful acoustic tone, accurate intonation, and a nice pickup sound.” He had a 6-string, but it split down the middle of the back while he was playing it on an airplane, so he only plays his 4-string now. James Hill plays a custom GString tenor ukulele, on which the James Hill Signature Model ukulele (JH-SM1) is based. The ukulele Azo Bell uses for most gigs is a cheap German instrument that cost him less than a hundred bucks ten years ago.
Author: Tony Hillier
Tony Hillier is based in Cairns in far north Queensland, from where he has been actively involved in all areas of the music industry in Australia for the past 25 years, primarily as a journalist, writing for national publications such as the Weekend Australian and Rhythms magazine (for which he is World Music & Folk correspondent), and performing locally, nationally and internationally with the bands Kamerunga and Snake Gully. He has also presented and produced World Music and Folk music programs for ABC Far North, Port Douglas Radio and 4CCR-FM, netting a CBAA Best Specialist Music Program Award with the last-named for a documentary on flamenco. Before coming to Australia, he was a racing journalist of some repute in the UK, where he wrote a column for the London Evening Standard under the nom-de-plume of Ajax.