With its chunk-a-chunk sound, whispery nylon strings, and diminutive body, the ukulele is having a moment. Or maybe even a decade. Zooey Deschanel strums one while crooning sweetly with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Tony Blair disrupts Labour Party conventions with one. When Eddie Vedder impulse-bought one on a trip to Hawaii, he was compelled to record a whole album of Ukulele Songs. (It won a Grammy, of course.) And then a Hawaiian ukulele prodigy played a Beatles cover in Central Park, and the video went viral—but more on that later.
Despite a long history that once included a reputation as an exotic and highbrow instrument, the ukulele has also endured decades of snubbing from both the pop music scene and the more cultured world of classical music. But with the help of trendsetters and tastemakers, it's making a strong comeback—the National Association of Music Merchants reported a 54 percent jump in ukulele sales in 2013—that can be traced in large part to the instrument's accessibility, affordability, YouTube popularity, and celebrity esteem.
The instrument's renewed appeal can be seen in the rise of ukulele music festivals, which have cropped up in places like Reno, Milwaukee, Napa, Port Townsend, Washington, and Rockville, Maryland. Take New Jersey's second annual Ukefest last August at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship Hall, which kicked off with 86 beginners tackling their first piece, "Surfin' USA." During the festival, the rented church was awash with love for the novices—a kind of generosity rarely seen at a piano or guitar convention. “Strum with your index finger or thumb—whatever feels good,” ukulele teacher, author, and songwriter Jim Beloff told the beginners. “There are no ukulele police.”
True enough, cases plastered with stickers like “Ukes Heal” and “I’m Pro Ukulele and I Vote” were sprawled out throughout the rooms. The inner sanctum offered a hodgepodge of instruments on display: ukes fashioned from indestructible polycarbonate and painted in retro pastels, cigar-box ukes, and the classic natural wood Hawaiian models. Participants lapped up advice on fingerpicking, playing by ear, and songwriting in workshops with titles like “Something in the Way She Ukes” and “Game of Ukes.”
This isn’t the ukulele’s first brush with mass popularity. The instrument, with its four plastic strings and a short neck, originated in Europe and was introduced to Hawaii in 1879 when a Portuguese immigrant named Joao Fernandez jumped off the boat and started strumming and singing with his branguinha (a small guitar-like instrument, sometimes called the machete). The crowd of Hawaiians were so impressed by his fingerboard prestidigitations that they called the instrument “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.” Fernandez and the instrument became a local sensation, and the reigning monarch Kalakaua even learned how to play it. By 1900, the sound of the ukulele was ubiquitous across the Islands, where it was pronounced by Hawaiians as “oo-ku-lay-lay.”
The ukulele got its first taste of mainland popularity in the 1900s when the Panama Pacific International Exposition lured over 17 million visitors with hula dance and song at the Hawaii Pavilion. What mainland Americans lacked in understanding of their exotic territory’s music, they made up for in enthusiasm. In 1913, a reporter for the Hartford Courant described how "the wonderfully sweet voices and weird melodies of these ukalele (sic) players strike a plaintive heart-note never to be forgotten once heard.”
Cutesy Hawaiian kitsch became big business. By the 1920s, Sears Roebuck and other department store catalogs offered ukes for a couple of dollars—and sometimes even for free with the purchase of lessons. Tin Pan Alley songsmiths cranked out dozens of “Hawaiian” novelty hits like “On the Beach at Waikiki,” followed by parodies of those same hits (“Oh How She Could Yacki Hacki Wicki Wacki Woo.”) Soon came an avalanche of inexpensive, mainland-made plastic ukuleles, ukulele method books like “Hum and Strum,” and “Beach Boy Method Hawaiian Style,” pandering to the appeal of faraway Hawaii as an exotic paradise. For four decades, the sounds of Hawaii drifted over the air to hundreds of radio stations.
The Great Depression provided another gateway for the ukulele. As sales of pianos, accordions, and other pricey instruments soared, saving and scrimping Americans helped boost the ukulele to peak popularity in the 1930s. Indeed, bluegrass music took off during that period as well, and the ukulele is still strongly associated with the string-band phenomenon.
Television offered a golden opportunity for the instrument. In 1950, the popular television host Arthur Godfrey, sporting a Hawaiian shirt, actually gave lessons to millions of viewers right in their living rooms. Plastic ukuleles proliferated— $5.95 each—and 1,700,000 ukulele players were born. Even Americans who'd never picked up an instrument couldn’t help developing a soft spot for the uke when it was played by Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, and Elvis Presley. (Blue Hawaii was Presley’s biggest box-office hit, and the soundtrack was number one on the Billboard charts for 5 months.) For a while it seemed like the ukulele had it all: a high-class reputation on the silver screen and folksy appeal as the people’s instrument.
Then came the ukepocalypse. For kids doing the Twist and rocking around the clock, the ukulele looked and sounded like a toy, compared to the thunderous electrified guitar sounds they heard from Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. “If a kid has a uke in his hand, he’s not going to get in much trouble,” Arthur Godfrey had said, apparently unaware that he'd put his finger on the uke’s fatal weakness.
Even as early as 1951, the National Association of Music Merchants attributed swelling guitar sales to “the desire of persons who learned to play the ukulele in its recent popularity upswing to master the more advanced instrument.” And on February 9, 1964, 74 million viewers of a popular variety show watched a typical ukulele act—a music hall artist clad in gold lame and singing and strumming her heart out—followed by four teens from Liverpool. As if the Fab Four playing “She Loves You” on Ed Sullivan weren’t crushing enough for the little uke, Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips on late-night television in 1967, consigning the ukulele to a two- decades-long image of creepy emasculation, absurdity, and plain irrelevance.
Then, decades later, a new generation of musicians jaded by electric guitars and mostly unaware of either the uke’s squareness or its Tiny-Tim-related disrepute began to tinker with the instrument. Beginning in the 1980s, some rock ‘n’ rollers began to introduce the ukulele—in some instances, to sound a note of folksy authenticity; in others, to explore more intimate, spontaneous and personal aspects of music making. Paul McCartney strummed one on his 2002 tour as a tribute to fellow Beatle George Harrison, a serious ukulele player and a devotee of the British music hall ukulele tradition. Harrison later gave his blessing to the ukulele revival by penning an introduction to Jumpin’ Jim (Beloff)’s 60s Uke-In Songbook: “Everybody should have and play a uke. It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh! It’s so sweet and also very old.”
The pop artists most identified with the ukulele, however are Steven Swartz of Songs From a Random House, Zach Condon of Beirut, and Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields. In some cases, these artists have attempted to replace the ubiquitous guitar with a sweeter and gentler sound, in others, a less familiar sound that would surprise audiences. “When you have a guitar, people are going to make judgments about what they’re going to hear, but with ukulele, the field’s open, and it’s a much more musically versatile instrument that people are aware of,” Swartz has said.
Those looking to validate their choice of instrument via celebrity association can point to a bevy of uke-playing luminaries—Cybill Shepherd, William Macy, and Pierce Brosnan—along with politicians (Tony Blair) and business executives (mega-zillionaire Warren Buffett). The ukulele has made a number of unique cameo appearances, appearing in the Flying Karamazov Brothers’ juggling acts and the Rockettes' annual Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. In ads for products like Yoplait and Canadian Tires, it's featured as the primary instrument of whimsy, along with glockenspiel, tinkly piano and tuneful whistling.
Another unexpected driving force for the ukulele was the Hawaiian music revival of the 1980s and 1990s. Hawaiian youth had previously fallen for rock just as hard as mainlanders. Local interest in the uke and traditional Island music had waned in the 1960s, and the dwindling numbers of students enrolling in Hawaii’s ukulele studios were mainly interested in learning Beatles songs. But then Hawaiian artists rediscovered the ukulele on their own terms, exploring the instrument in a new way, blurring the boundaries between Hawaiian folk and mainstream pop that had helped to marginalize the instrument.
There were Kelly Boy Delima of Kapena, Troy Fernandez of the Kaau Crater Boys, and Israel (Iz) Kamakawiwo'ole, who inspired audiences with both pyrotechnics and politically conscious songs that protested the second-class status of Native Hawaiians. His ukulele medley “Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” was featured on the television show ER as well as on movie soundtracks and ads, boosting his Facing Future album to platinum sales (a first for a Hawaiian artist). Even more unexpected was the YouTube-driven stardom of 20-year-old Hawaiian artist Jake Shimabukuro, who posted a video of himself playing elaborate, introspective variations on George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on a ukulele. One of the first YouTube videos to go viral, it helped dispense with the stereotypically kitschy images that Hollywood had imposed upon both Hawaiian music and the ukulele.
The ukulele, one could say, has returned from pop-culture purgatory. The eight-member Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain—composed of self-proclaimed “anarcho-syndicalists of the ukulele world”—draws sellout crowds with an eclectic repertoire ranging from the Sex Pistols and Nirvana to Bach and Beethoven. The modern Canadian movement, with deeper pedagogical roots than either Britain’s or America's, thrives thanks to school-based programs that advocate using the ukulele to teach music. The Langley Ukulele Ensemble, made up of high-school artists in British Columbia, has nurtured such luminaries as award-winning artist/ukulele advocate James Hill. And few nations have more rabid fans than Japan, where Shimabukuro spends half of the year touring and where members of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain get stopped on the street to sign autographs.
Despite its higher profile, the ukulele still plays its role as everyman instrument quite convincingly. "The ukulele has always fascinated me because it doesn’t intimidate other people," says Shimabukuro. Indeed, the scores of beginners at Ukefest New Jersey reaffirmed this statement. Hardly as long a kid’s arm, the miniature instrument is so inviting, and its sound so wispy and sweet, that it was hard to keep from strumming while teachers were talking at the workshops. Not everyone can tackle the guitar, with its bulky size and six metal strings; comparatively, the ukulele’s four plastic strings appear more manageable and less painful for the left-hand fingers on the neck.
Because of its accessibility, the uke has managed to attract the huge grassroots following it struggled to draw before the Internet hooked up players and enabled Uke Meetups, jam sessions, and YouTube uke tutorials. Marcy Marxer, two-time Grammy-award winning folk artist who performs on ukulele and other string instruments with her partner Cathy Fink, says that what makes the uke so popular now "is the friendliness of the community. There’s no hierarchy of advanced players, just wide-open acceptance. Since so many people are new to the instrument, they remember what it was like to be a beginner.”
In other words, people don’t expect you to uke with your teeth or up in the air, like virtuoso Stuart “Stukulele” Fuchs does in his solo acts. George Hinchliffe of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain attributes his supergroup’s (and possibly, the instrument’s) success to the worn-out appeal of high-tech shows, and performers who stare at a laptop. "We yearned for a gig in which people simply play the music," he said, "and [the ukulele] is open to all. The audience goes home and thinks, ‘I could do that.’”