Ukulele Madness

Why the guitar’s picked-on little brother is back, with a vengeance

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There he was in late 1961, Elvis Presley, the everything of my musical youth before The Beatles elbowed him violently aside, on the cover of his soundtrack album for that foolish film Blue Hawaii. There was the King, starring straight at us and into his bloated future, with a yellow lei circling his neck, and holding a … ukulele.

What the hell was going on? From the beginning of his career, Elvis had turned the six-string acoustic guitar into a sexual prop, an instrument of power and an object of envy, and now, as a parody of a parody, this Tupelo “haole boy” was hawking what we working-class families of the late ’50s California economic boom called an Island Paradise. Elvis was telling us that the uke and Hawaii were the real deal, a taste of luxury and lovely excess if only our father could save enough for seven of us to fly 3,000 miles to Honolulu (he couldn’t). But like any sharp salesman who lies to himself all the better to lie to you, the goods Elvis had on offer were a well-packaged mirage.

The cover of Blue Hawaii told us that inside lay “14 great songs,” which, in reality, led straight to rock ’n’ roll Nowheresville. And that ukulele just about said it all. Ain’t no way my man was going to make that little box howl. “Elvis the Pelvis” couldn’t do his purloined and re-patented grind on that bitty thing without turning it into splinters. And without a strap and his Martin guitar—the two ingredients that when added to his hips, lips and tenor/baritone voice shook us in places we didn’t know existed—Ukulele Elvis, as far as I could see and hear, was now a musical eunuch. How could the guy who sang “Jailhouse Rock” stick us with the insipid “Rock-a-Hula Baby” and sit sartorially reflowered, trading blue suede shoes for Hawaiian shirts?

• • •

After a few decades in relative exile, the ukulele is now officially cool again. Not cool in a dullard’s way, like the present fedora-and-Uggs tomfoolery, but adroitly cool, like gracefully learning how to play good chess, for example, where savoir-faire is earned after considerable effort.

Some facts on the uke coolness revival for your consideration:

• Eddie Vedder, who will play at the Palms Oct. 31-Nov. 1, released the aptly named 2011 album Ukulele Songs, made up entirely of uke tunes.

• Train’s ukulele-driven song “Hey, Soul Sister” has more than 40 million views on YouTube.

• In Canada, 50,000 kids play the ukulele as part of their arts education, and there are ukulele clubs in almost every major city in North America, Europe and Japan.

• A 35-year-old Hawaiian named Jake Shimabukuro, who will play at UNLV’s Artemus Ham Hall on Nov. 18 ( for information), seems to have changed the nature of what can be accomplished on the ukulele the same way Jimi Hendrix expanded the possibilities of the electric guitar.

It is the instrument’s third renaissance in the past 100 years. First it made its way into jazz precincts in the Roaring ’20s, then faded before its kitschy comeback in the ’60s (which, in retrospect, had its moments; George Harrison loved the uke so much that he carried a trunk of them to give to other musicians). And this time around, I feel a little different about the ukulele’s presence in the culture. How is it that the Rodney Dangerfield of stringed instruments finally won my respect?

• • •

Blue Hawaii was the first occasion when the ukulele asserted itself unpleasantly into my musically manicured life. The second assault came in the person of Tiny Tim, a one-man freak show who actually knew well the history of ukulele music in Vaudeville and as a popular jazz instrument in the 1920s. Tim, dressing male below the waist, but gender-bending above, appeared with his uke (pulled from a brown paper bag) on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson in 1968, the year that gave us The Beatles’ “White Album” and the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet. He sang what became a hit, his treacly “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” In Tim’s hands the ukulele became an anti-instrument, as he strummed musical gold into dross. Tiny Tim played well enough, but what did it matter when it was his campiness and achingly bad falsetto/warble that got all the attention?

But Tim—coming on the heels of Elvis, and of the uke’s even earlier presence on Arthur Godfrey’s radio and TV shows—sold millions of cheap plastic ukuleles to 1960s kids. These were really toys, unplayable and unplayed, and a good percentage likely ended up as wall kitsch or in a widening gyre of trash somewhere in the South Pacific.

By the time I moved to Hawaii in 1973, I figured that Elvis had been dead and buried, Tiny Tim was alive and well, and that the ukulele had some role in these ugly proceedings.

As it turns out, I knew nothing at all about the ukulele and its charms. While living on Oahu, I heard a good deal of packaged “Hawaiian music,” wherein the “exotic” natives could be rediscovered and recolonized as a consumer good—Captain Cook with a 737—but I also heard performances that were both subtle and sumptuous, part of a classical Hawaiian repertoire that included virtuosic playing from the likes of Ernest Kaai and John Kameaaloha Almeida. But just as I was learning about the real stuff—the good stuff—people got over the vagary that was Tiny Tim and ukulele music virtually disappeared from the mainland’s mainstream culture.

• • •

So, why the revival? Sure, some celebrity names are enough to drive thousands of people to buy cheap ukuleles and start lessons. People seem to enjoy doing what the stars are doing, like taking up the Kabbalah because Madonna found wisdom in its esoteric teachings. But YouTube exposure for the true masters of the instrument might be even more crucial in the uke’s growing popularity. The kind of deep-niche music I only heard because I happened to be in Hawaii in the early 1970s is now available at a click. And ukulele experts—and increasingly, those kids who start lessons with them—know what the fadsters don’t: If pursued with a bit of fortitude, the ukulele has an undeniable magic.

• • •

I now live not far from the famed McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, Calif., where one can take ukulele lessons from Steve Rose, a man who knows his way around four strings just as well as six. When I spoke with him recently, he told me that he, too, had dismissed the instrument for a long time. But then he caught the work of the famed Hawaiian player Herb Ohta. “When I heard Ohta-san playing Duke Ellington on the ukulele, I said, ‘That’s amazing.’”

Rose lays out the basic social and psychological facts of the uke’s recent triumph, which have nothing to do with swaying young women in grass skirts or preserving traditional Hawaiian culture. The uke is attractive to kids, he says, because it’s less intimidating than the guitar. It’s simpler and easier to handle, sort of like trying to learn Spanish before taking on Mandarin. He hears a constant refrain from young kids, two-thirds of them girls: “I don’t want to learn guitar because it takes too long.” Teenagers bring in songs they find online—“songs I’ve never heard of,” Rose says—and expect to learn them in a hurry. It ain’t Ellington, but Rose obliges.

The students are attracted to the Hallmark-card nature of the ukulele sound—“positive, uplifting, simple,” Rose says. The mighty uke seems to make people smile, even when they don’t want to.

And it’s here, in the realm of the unintended smile, where the true magic of the ukulele finds its room to move. Its sound is high, sweet and somehow innocent. Students tell Rose that the uke relaxes them. For a generation accustomed to the staycation, it calls up visions of a beach in Hawaii, with the tropical breeze and the whole fantasy-island template securely in place. It summons a nostalgia that’s a close cousin of the Mad Men craze: a dream of a lost America of Wayfarers and sticker-festooned Samsonite suitcases—a vision, dare I say, of Blue Hawaii.

There’s a utopian dimension embedded in our psychic makeup. Utopia denies and overcomes—if only for a moment—a reality that makes harsh demands on the body and mind, like some merciless drill sergeant. The ukulele sound—the simple delight in playing it—bends the arc of life toward eros. It speaks the language of pleasure and gratification. It asserts the joys of a sprightly imagination against the insistent counter-argument of repression and duty and endless work.

On these terms, the ukulele is a gentle rebel instrument—not punk, not hardcore—pressing the claims of sensuousness, as if one really could walk the beach just strumming and humming. And, with a uke, one can. No wonder the kids love it. No wonder I do, too.

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