Ukulele zeitgeist sweeping the world and Vancouver International Folk Festival

Two ukes are better than one

I was going to write a piece about my love affair with the ukulele.  What prompted me was word that the Vancouver Folk Music Festival is asking ukulele players to write a song about the festival.  The winner of the contest will be invited to perform their song on the main stage Sunday night.

With that in mind, I planned to write about the ukulele zeitgeist, about the fact that all over the world people are playing the standard ukulele in alarmingly large numbers.  Just Google ukulele and you will get 38 million results in .07 seconds flat.  There are ukulele circles from Nanaimo to New York.  There are on-line tuners, tutorials, tablature tables and shops devoted entirely to the instrument, such as Ukulele Movement in Singapore. 

I would have also drawn your attention to music by people like Nellie McKay, Rani Arbo, Black Gardenia, Ralph Shaw and James Hill.  I’d have pointed out that the uke is ubiquitous these days, and that the two most common TV advertising tropes are golden retrievers and soundtracks with boppy ukuleles playing happy summery music. 

I would have mentioned that the ukulele (variously pronounced you-kuh-LAY-lee, YOU-kew-lay-lee and OOK-uh-lay-lee) is a descendantof the four-stringed Portuguese Braga or Braquinha, brought to Hawaii by explorers in the late 19th Century, and that, according to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu:

“The instrument was heard one day by Edward Purvis, a British army officer who was Vice-Chamberlain of King Kalakaua's court. He was delighted with the size and the sound and asked to be taught, and soon he was playing for various court functions. Because of Mr. Purvis' small build and his lively antics while performing on the instrument, he was compared to a jumping flea. The Hawaiian, fond of nicknames, called him ‘ukulele’. (Uku meaning flea, and Lele meaning jumping)..."

Technically, the uke is a chordophone classified as a plucked lute.  It’s a member of the guitar family.  And almost anyone can strum a tune on one.  Its heyday was the 1920s, when every college kid had one and popular songs and dances were written for it.  The uke is particularly good for sappy, sentimental songs, and that’s how I got hooked. 

In the 1979 film The Jerk, Steve Martin strolls along the beach after dark with Bernadette Peters.  He’s strumming the uke and they’re both singing heart-breaking harmonies on a Billy Rose song from 1926....

    I know, with the dawn                                                                        That you will be gone                                                                          But tonight you belong to me

Lee David’s melody is so sweet, so wistful and hopeful, that I fell in love with the song, and vowed to learn the ukulele so that I could play it. But I didn’t do anything about it until our son gave me a tenor uke for Christmas.  I learned the chords to the song that afternoon, while the turkey cooked.  But the technique ain’t as easy as Steve Martin makes it look or sound. 

That’s because Steve’s an actor.  He's also a pretty good banjo player.  But for this scene he asked Lyle Ritz to actually play the ukulele. Good call.  Lyle is the father of jazz ukulele, even though for most of his career he’s been better known as a studio bass player in LA.  His uke has also been heard behind Ray Charles, Sonny & Cher, Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt.

A couple years ago I found a gorgeous baritone ukulele in a Victoria music shop.  It’s like a little four-stringed guitar, and on good days it sounds deep-throated and earthy.  Of course chords for the baritone uke are entirely different that those for the tenor (or soprano).  There are some chords in common, but it’s like learning a new dialect. 

In his 1988 book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell made the famous claim that anyone can become an expert at anything if they spend ten thousand hours doing it.  Ten thousand hours is 24 hours a day for 416 days, or one year plus 51 days or from August 1st of this year to September 20 of next year.  Or, spread over 10 years, it’s 2.7 hours a day.

I haven’t been playing the uke that much.  So it’s probably going to be another 20 years before I approach the competent mark, much less become an expert.  Which is why my uking is a solitary pursuit, and why you won’t see me on the main stage at the folk fest Sunday night (or on any stage on any night for that matter).  But thank you to all the ukists brave enough to take this sweet and democratic little instrument to a wider audience.  Long may you play.

Anyway, that’s what I would have written.  Except that I just found the music for John Prine’s Spanish Pipe Dream so I’m going to get the uke down from the wall and learn how to play that instead.  

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