The humble ukulele is undergoing a revolution.
Ukulele clubs are springing up around the world, big-name rock stars are strumming the small, four-stringed Hawaiian guitar, and a recent documentary heralds the ukulele’s power to bring people together.
Still skeptical? The leader of a local ukulele group thinks it may be time to reconsider.
Caroline Knickle, a teacher at Holy Family Elementary School and director of the Uke On (sounds like Yukon) Ukulele Club, first started playing ukulele in the 1980s. She is currently enrolled in a three-year program, learning to teach the instrument.
She speaks thoughtfully of the ukulele’s appeal.
“It has a mellow sound and it’s easy to pick up – you learn a few chords and you’re sounding pretty good.”
Twice a month, Knickle and other adult members of the club meet in the school’s library to share their hobby and learn new tunes.
But Knickle is also an advocate of using ukuleles to teach music in schools.
The pint-sized uke is a perfect medium for teaching children fingering and strumming techniques, as well as music theory. Its size – not to mention the fact it has only four strings – makes it easy for children to learn quickly.
“We’re not really teaching ukulele,” Knickle acknowledges, “we’re teaching music.”
For kids, it’s like a miniature guitar to which popular songs can easily be adapted. One YouTube clip shows an eight-year-old singing Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister”. On another, a toddler strums the Jason Mraz song, “I’m Yours”, with a Mick Jagger-like swagger.
The ukulele evolved in Hawaii in the 1880s from instruments Portuguese immigrants brought to the islands.
By the 1920s, it was a common fixture in North American jazz bands. The ukulele enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1950s, thanks in large part to U.S. radio and TV star Arthur Godfrey.
Most people of that era were familiar with the mnemonic, “My Dog has Fleas”, used to remember the ukulele’s standard G4-C4-E4-A4 tuning.
By the early 1960s, before rock ‘n’ roll and the folk music revival made the guitar the must-have instrument for young, aspiring musicians, the inexpensive plastic or wooden ukulele was a common item in many Canadian homes.
After Halifax music educator J. Chalmers Doane introduced the ukulele as a teaching tool, many thousands of Canadian school children and adults learned the instrument through his program.
One of the most unforgettable ukulele-accompanied songs ever is the 1968 remake of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, sung in falsetto by a Lebanese-American showman named Herbert Khaury, better known as Tiny Tim.
After years of uneven popularity – sometimes outright scorn – the ukulele has gained renewed international appeal in the last decade, and is no longer considered just a novelty item.
This revival was due partly to the impact of a single recording – a medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World”, sung by the late Hawaiian performer, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.
One of the ukelele’s strong points is how adaptable it is to different musical genres. The uke’s sweet, somewhat corny character renders it all the more endearing when paired with a spectrum of styles and players.
While a YouTube search shows how well it lends itself to the rock-star dreams of children, classical players, emo punksters, and bona fide rock stars are also picking up the instrument.
Grunge rocker Eddie Vedder’s famous growl becomes tender when accompanied by the plinky strum of the ukulele on his recent album Ukulele Songs.
The video “Longing to Belong” juxtaposes the deep melancholic wail of a cello with the sweet lightness of the ukulele. Vedder’s hardened, gnarled look is beautifully softened by what looks like a child’s toy in his hands.
“Love can be frightening,” he gruffly sings, but the ukulele’s innocent tone fills the refrain with a hopeful, plucky resonance.
Knickle speaks of Vedder as a great source for ukulele music, but cites virtuoso James Hill as her hero. She had the opportunity to hear him play in person when he came to Whitehorse last February.
Hill takes the ukulele to a new level. His rendition of “Billie Jean” is nothing short of flabbergasting (click on the video on his homepage to view), layering percussive beats and looping refrains.
You can’t help looking around for a hidden drum kit. An audience member shouts out “Oh, wow!” as everyone realizes all this electric funk and gritty pop is coming from the seemingly mild-mannered ukulele.
Whitehorse’s Uke On Ukelele Club is still young, with only a few months of regular practice under its belt. Knickle hopes to gather more members and eventually perform in small venues.
When Hill was here, “lots of people came out to play. I know they’re out there,” she notes.
Knickle hopes a new website (www.ukeonukuleleclub.weebly.com) and the ukelele’s international revolution will attract joiners.
“Everyone sings,” she says of the club’s format. “People bring new songs they want to play or they can perform something [for the club].”
The ukulele also lends itself to group singing; “It’s a people’s instrument” is one of the quotes from a trailer for the documentary The Mighty Uke (also worth a peek on YouTube – particularly watch for the teenaged classical players).
“Anyone can learn to play a couple of chords and all of a sudden we can sit around the circle and sing songs together,” the trailer proclaims.
The ukulele can be plucked with precision to play classical music, strummed lazily for folk, or tapped, slapped and hammered to evoke pop.
But whatever the music, the ukulele always retains its playful, somewhat goofy, tone. Its lighthearted nature and playability pulls people together – after all, you just can’t help but smile when someone strums a ukulele.
The Uke On Ukelele Club meets on the second and fourth Wednesdays of every month at Holy Family Elementary. For information, contact [email protected].
Katie Zdybel is a teacher and writer whose articles have appeared in numerous print and online publications.