“The ukulele was brought to America and Britain about thirty years ago, when it had some vogue, being easily strummed by the novice and having a convenient tablature of chord shapes….how often fretted instruments have felt the ups and downs of fashion, and have suffered from the fickleness of a fond public.”
MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS THROUGH THE AGES. Edited by Anthony Baines
The ukulele is back in vogue again following the same high curve of popularity as the piano accordion, the banjo, the ocarina, the mouth organ and the guitar before it. Although the guitar is the only instrument to have maintained its level of popularity the little uke looks set to follow.
The Ukulele is usually associated with Hawaii where its name is thought to mean “jumping flea” – perhaps because of the way that the fingers move when it is played. The last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalanithe, would disagree with this. She said that the name means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). Certainly a form of the instrument was introduced into Hawaii in the 1880s by Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde. They brought with them small guitar-like instruments called the ‘cavaquinho’ and the ‘rajão’. Within two weeks after landing off the ‘SS Ravenscraig’ in August 1879 the “Hawaiian Gazette” reported that “Madeira Islanders have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts.” The Hawaiian King David Kalakaua was a fan of the instrument and soon incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.
Transplanted to America in the 1920’s the ukulele, portable, cheap and easy to play, became a ‘must have’ with the flappers and beaus of the Jazz Age who strummed along to Hawaiian themed songs being knocked out by the tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley. In Britain too the ukulele was never far from popular taste. In the late 30’s and early 40s it was popularised by Northern singer, song writer and comedian George Formby. His own preferred instrument was the banjulele, a hybrid instrument which combined the neck, 4 strings and tuning of the ukulele with the vellum covered resonator of the banjo. The banjulele had been developed in 1917 by Alvin D. Keech as a portable instrument with plenty of volume.
The ukulele was also the featured instrument of Tiny Tim – a long haired and gently eccentric American singer who enjoyed a cult following in Britain and the USA during the 1960’s. With a very high pitched voice and an encyclopaedic knowledge of early American popular music Tiny Tim, (a.k.a Herbert Khaury) had a number of ukulele driven hits, the most popular being “Tiptoe through the Tulips” in 1968. He was also a regular performer on TV shows and festivals of the time.
The blame for the most recent wave of ukulele loopiness in the U.K must be laid at the door of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, formed in 1986 by George Hinchcliffe. This 8 piece ensemble of ukulele nuts describe their performances as…
…a funny, virtuosic, twanging, awesome, foot-stomping obituary of rock-n-roll and melodious light entertainment featuring only the “bonsai guitar” and a menagerie of voices in a collision of post-punk performance and toe-tapping oldies. There are no drums, pianos, backing tracks or banjos, no pitch shifters or electronic trickery. Only an astonishing revelation of the rich palette of orchestration afforded by ukuleles and singing (and a bit of whistling).
Their repertoire – played at venues as prestigious as the Proms, Glastonbury and Carnegie Hall – ranges from the “Dam Busters March” to Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” via the Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the U.K”. The Orchestra has deliberately tried to avoid the well known plunkings of Britain’s most popular ukulelist George Formby although they occasionally wheel out a version of George’s biggest hit, “Leaning on a Lamp Post” – which they perform in Russian Cossack style.
Although the uke has a reputation for cheerful wicki wacki woo singalongs, in 2002 it revealed another side of its character. At the “Concert for George” held on the 29th November 2002 at the Royal Albert Hall on the first anniversary of the death of ukulele fan George Harrison Joe Brown used the instrument to accompany himself on a moving version of “I’ll See You in My Dreams”. As the last few plaintive ukulele chords echoed away there was not a single person who was not touched by the moment. For all its endemic “turned out nice again!” cheeriness the ‘bonsai guitar’ can also break your heart. You have been warned.
“The ukulele is a noble little instrument… anyone serious about music will eventually come to play one.”
BOB BROZMAN – Ethnomusicologist
If you would like to take up the ukulele Surya Cooper and Clive Harvey are holding workshops for Beginners and Improvers on Guitar and Ukulele on Saturday 24th September 2011 at Twickenham Library, Garfield Road, Twickenham, TW1 3LT. Ukuleles are on sale on the day starting at £20.00. People are welcome to bring their own instruments and may be able to borrow one. The courses are open to strummers of all ages and abilities. The Uke workshops will be led by Clive Harvey
- Guitar for Beginners: 1.00pm – 2.15pm
- Guitar for Improvers: 2.30pm – 3.45pm
- Ukulele for Beginners: 4.00pm – 5.15pm
- Ukulele for Improvers: 5.30pm – 6.45pm
Price- £8 for one or £12 for 2 or more workshops
For more information please visit:-
CNN News report on the growing popularity of the ukulele
George Formby “With my little ukulele in my hand”
Credit: The photograph of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is from the BBC
— from Martyn Day