Hawaii has been in the news a lot lately. President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate, and A Singular Woman, Janny Scott’s biography of his mother, Ann Dunham, was recently published.
But Hawaii is also offering something even more newsworthy, in larger numbers than ever before–an instrument through which almost anyone can find musical expression, enriching their own lives as well as those around them. Such are the unexpected benefits of playing the ukulele.
The association of the ukulele with Hawaii is far from new. In fact, it is a descendant of a four-stringed instrument brought to Hawaii in the late 1870’s from Portugal. It has gone through several waves of popularity since then. Remember Tiny Tim?
But there is nothing that quite compares to the current ukulele craze. It all began in 1999, when Israel Kamakawiwo’ole ‘s ukulele version of “Over the Rainbow” was used in a commercial for eToys. That recording has been licensed over 100 times since, to sell everything from paint to lottery tickets to food, software, and banking services.
A number of major pop artists and indie rock groups have fed this craze. They include Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, who is about to release a new solo album, “Ukulele Songs.” Here is his “Longing to Belong.”
And don’t forget Paul McCartney’s tribute to George Harrison at the 2002 “Concert for George.” Four years later Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” went viral on YouTube.
Most importantly, as singerAmanda Palmer, formerly of the punk cabaret group, Dresden Dolls, puts it, the ukulele is the ideal instrument for the D.I.Y. age. It represents everything that “the grand polished machine of the music industry is not. … This is the age of democratization in music. Anyone can be a musician. And in a recession, when you have a $20 instrument and there is a big musical renaissance, anyone will want to join in.”
Local strumming groups are springing up all over the place because no special training is required to join. Ukulele strumming goes so well with untrained vocal styles. We were charmed recently by a photo of two middle-aged women learning to play the ukulele together. They looked so excited and pleased with themselves. It brought home clearly the inner rewards that people get from making music for fun, whether you sing alone in the shower or join a ukulele orchestra.
There is a lively magazine focused on making music for fun, called, fittingly, Making Music: Better Living Through Recreational Music Making (full disclosure: the lovely editor, Antoinette Follett, is a relative of ours). Click on the link for more information on the ukelele. The whole magazine is well worth checking out.