The ukulele is a small instrument with a reputation for permanent cheerfulness. The word itself conjures up many different impressions, some see it as Hawaiian, others might think of Tiny Tim’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” (not one of ukulele’s high moments), but they might also remember The Who’s beautiful ukulele-based “Blue, Red and Grey” from the 1975 album Who’s Next.
Fast-forward to 2012: Eddie Vedder? Taylor Swift? Who hasn’t bopped along recently to Train’s strumming ukulele in the hit song “Hey, Soul Sister?” And then there’s Honda’s recent slate of ukulele songs in its car commercials.
Judging by recent reports from music retailers, the increased popularity of the ukulele is reflected in their burgeoning sales. Last year, Guitar Center reported that since 2008, there has been a 300 percent growth in uke sales. In January, Hohner reported a 10.2 percent increase in sales of ukes for its 2010/2011 fiscal year.
How to explain this newfound love for an instrument that suffered so miserably after the Beatles came to town?
For starters, none other than George Harrison championed the uke. You can also thank the man with the impossibly long name and golden tenor voice, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose 1993 ukulele medley “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” became a huge hit that popped up frequently in movies, TV shows and commercials.
But while Kamakawiwo’ole may have planted the seed, the man that many credit with the current craze is instrumentalist Jake Shimabukuro, whose 2004 version of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” proved that the ukulele could be used for something other than Hawaiian cocktail parties. Rock, jazz, blues — in the span of eight minutes, Shimabukuro covered the gamut and launched a movement.
For Brad Ranola, co-owner of Anacapa Ukulele on McGrath Street in Ventura, seeing Shimabukuro perform was life-changing. Before he saw Shimabukuro’s video, he was a drummer. After watching Shimabukuro, he was a convert.
“My interest peaked with one video,” said Ranola. “It’s guys like Jake that are making this a wave rather than a trend. They’re bringing legitimacy to the instrument.”
It’s also become something of a YouTube phenomenon. Run a search for “ukulele singers” and see how many musicians have recently posted their own videos — singers, teachers, anyone with a uke, a camera and a computer.
The ukulele itself is actually an adaptation of the Portuguese instrument the cavaquinho (also known as the braguinha), a small guitar-like instrument imported to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century.
It crossed the Pacific in the early 20th century and, in 1915, was featured at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. From there, the craze spread to New York’s Tin Pan Alley, where it was used extensively by vaudeville performers such as Roy Smeck and Cliff Edwards. It remained popular until the electric guitar ushered in the roaring age of rock and roll. Little strings fell out of fashion. While it’s true that the ukulele has suffered some recent blows, in fact, it’s been around for more than a century and has always maintained a devoted group of followers.
Why such avid fans? According to Ranola, its primary appeal has to do with the fact that it’s easier to learn and pays off more quickly than, say, an acoustic guitar, or the piano with its complex finger requirements.
“There are less roadblocks to it. It’s a small neck with fewer strings to deal with, and the nylon strings are easier on your hands,” said Ranola. “Also, as opposed to the recorder, you can sing with it. It’s affordable, portable, and it’s a polyphonic instrument, so it’s easier to teach music theory.”
For local musician Alan Ferentz, who teaches ukulele at Ventura College and leads a weekly ukulele group on Wednesday nights at Java Joe’s in Ventura, the ukulele has been popular here for many years.
“The ukulele movement is alive and well,” said Ferentz. “We’ve always had a pretty good contingent in Ventura County, but with its resurgence in the last few years, our group has really grown. “For Ferentz, playing together is the glue that holds most uke musicians together.
“Somewhere along the line, we’ve lost something by listening to CDs and videos. Acoustic music, sitting around and singing, this means that ukulele really is a community event.”
Jack Zigray has been a professional guitarist for 35 years. Zigray ran the Camarillo Café in Freedom Park for 20 years and has gathered many different musicians to play there. Now he comes to support Ferentz at Java Joe’s.
“For a lot of years, Alan came to support me at the Café,” he said, “so now I come to support him. That’s when I found that the ukulele was easy to learn, and I really enjoyed it.”
Zigray is a big fan of the Tin Pan Alley music that remains a consistent staple of many ukulele groups. It’s music that he’s familiar with and loves to play.
Ukulele music, however, is not just for folks gathered in a circle. Ranola points out how it has grown into its own distinct art form. The popularity of Shimabukuro has led many artists to write and play their own original ukulele music.
“There are people writing new songs for uke,” said Ranola. “They’re not just guitar songs adapted for uke. They’re songs specifically for uke. The application is where uke is starting to come back,” said Ranola. “We’re starting to see it used more in some venues. It’s now legit. People consider it a real instrument.”
As for buying a good ukulele, Ranola recommends you do the same thing you would with buying appliances or a car; check in with someone who knows about ukuleles.
“Talk to people that know,” he said. “The last thing you want to do is end up with a toy uke. You can find a decent ukulele that costs anywhere from $40-$100.”
For the ukulele, it seems a new day has dawned. New music, great artists, a world of possibilities. The uke is quite versatile. It can conjure up happy thoughts and pleasant moments on the beach or make great rock and roll.
“Even though it seems like a toy, you can do a lot of music with that instrument,” said Zigray.
Ukulele groups in Ventura County: Java Joe’s, Wednesdays, 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., 2950 Johnson Drive, Ventura; Wilson Senior Center, first and third Fridays, 10 a.m., 350 N. C St., Oxnard; Denny’s, 1st and 3rd Thursdays, 6 to 8 p.m., 50 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks; City of Camarillo Senior Center, Mondays, 10 a.m., 1605 E. Burnley St., Camarillo. For classes, contact Alan Ferenz, 368-2308, or Brad Ranola, 500-6848.