One Tuesday morning recently I tiptoed into an auditorium and onto the stage, threading my way through the U3A ukulele group to take the one vacant seat. I arrived at the Senior Citizens rooms at 10am but we were supposed to be there at 9.30am. The group was up to song three (Maggie) by then. So I calmly set up my music stand, took the baritone uke out of the bag and joined in at the start of verse two. The delay was due to setting up my songbook, which has chords for a baritone ukulele, completely different to the rest of the group.
There are ukulele groups everywhere you go these days. There’s a Brisbane Ukulele Musicians Society in Brisbane – which accounts for the acronym BUMS and a similar group on the Sunshine coast, SCUMS. I think this probably typifies the attitude of ukulele groups. They don’t take themselves too seriously. Or at least, ours doesn’t, as the tutor wasn’t fazed by my late entry, something which could get you fired if you were, say, second violin in a symphony orchestra.
I decided to buy a ukulele and join a group when we moved to our new town. I figured how hard could it be – I’d been playing guitar for 45 years. I spoke to a musician friend who works at a guitar store. It was his day off, but he recommended someone to talk to and ventured some opinions about ukuleles.
These small, four-stringed instruments are popular with children and bored septuagenarians, as they are easy to learn. Often all you need to form a chord is one finger on one fret. The strumming is something else, but a cinch to a guitarist. The baritone uke is tuned to the top four strings of a guitar. So, with a customised chord chart, I mastered six or seven chords at my first session.
You can’t and shouldn’t diss the ukulele as so many people do when referring to the banjo. The ukulele has enjoyed several starring moments in the popular music spotlight over the last 140 years or so.
If you are my vintage, you will remember Tiny Tim’s 1968 recording of Tip-toe Through the Tulips, which charted for nine weeks and reached No 17 on the Billboard Top 100.
Perhaps it was not so much the novelty of the ukulele but Tiny’s Tim’s tremulous falsetto and his waif-like persona that captured the public’s attention. This video has been viewed 15 million times although you’d have to ask yourself why. Al Dubin and Joe Burke wrote the song in 1929 and it was first popularised by Nick Lucas. If you are a younger person, you may have encountered it in the 2010 horror movie, Insidious.
That’s a good word to describe how the ukulele gets under a musician’s skin. Contemporary musicians to employ the uke include Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Eric Clapton, Eddie Vedder and the late George Harrison. In 2006 a studious-looking Japanese player, Jake Shimabukoro, revived Harrison’s While my Guitar Gently Weeps, performing it in New York’s Central Park on so-so quality video. Nonetheless, it has had 16 million views and set Shimabukoro on a hectic schedule of touring around the world. One of the many people to leave comments said: “My uke must be broken, it sounds nothing like this.” If you thought this was a fluke, check out Jake performing Bohemian Rhapsody at a Ted Talk in 2010.
Like many people who play, Jake describes the ukulele as ‘the instrument of peace’, a sentiment echoed by Loudon Wainwright III in a 2010 song. LWIII remarks here “if every baby was issued with a ukulele at the time of their birth, there would be world peace……and a lot of lousy music!”
Actor, singer-songwriter and comedian George Formby found ukulele fame with a smutty ditty he wrote called When I’m Cleaning Windows. If you’re going to watch this next video, bear in mind what media historian Brian McFarlane said of his movies in the1930s and 1940s, Formby portrayed ‘gormless Lancastrian innocents who would win through against some form of villainy, gaining the affection of an attractive middle-class girl in the process’.
Formby owes much of his success to purchasing a ukulele and marrying Beryl Ingham, both of which he did in 1923. Beryl became his stage manager, insisting that he wear a suit and introduce the ukulele to his act. From such showbiz savvy came hugely popular songs like Bless ‘Em All and Leaning on a Lamp Post (reprised by Herman’s Hermits in the 1960s).
So you may be wondering why I would take up ukulele at an advanced age. I tell people it’s to get me out of the house and that much is true. The U3A group of about 20 people meet every week and our tutor Martin is keen on getting us out to perform at retirement villages and the like.
As most guitar players would know, when you mostly play by yourself, at home, eventually you reach a learning plateau. That’s when many people quietly put the axe away and take up lawn bowls or quilt-making. Buying an easy-to-learn instrument like a ukulele more or less commits you to joining a group, so it becomes a social occasion, but also a way to challenge yourself to keep up with the pace. It is also very soothing. Actors Tom Hanks, Ryan Gosling, Pierce Brosnan and William H Macy play uke for recreation. Macy says he and his wife play the instrument to ‘self-soothe’. I could not agree more, though whether She Who Is Just Down the Hall appreciates hearing my self-soothing experiments is another matter.
The growing popularity of the instrument has created a need for ukulele festivals – weekend events attended by uke enthusiasts. If you like camping, music and camaraderie, go no further than Kenilworth on the first weekend in May. This will be the 7th annual Sunshine Coast Ukulele Festival. I might even be there!
If you spend time on YouTube, it does not take long to uncover brilliant musicianship. I’m not the first to recommend this YouTube video which features the late Hawaiian ukulele player and singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (Iz). His 1993 medley of What a Wonderful World and Somewhere over the Rainbow has had almost 80 million views, unusual for a five-minute song. You might have heard it first on an episode of ER.
The ukulele (originally called a machete), emerged from the islands of Portugal in the late 1880s, when immigrant sugar cane workers introduced it to Hawaii. A hundred years later, the 1990s uke revival brought into popular use to augment folk and country bands. Ukulele orchestras emerged; a skilled arranger can achieve a lovely sound by scoring parts for the main types of uke – soprano, tenor, baritone and bass.
My musician pal advised against buying a cheapie (from $12 in discount department stores). I had already decided to do just that and ended up with a $159 baritone instrument made from maple. I learned to play guitar on a six-string classical instrument, so quickly got used again to the different feel of nylon strings.
Music aficionados will say you can never get a good sound out of a four-string instrument with nylon strings. Well, here’s the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain (as Mr Waits would say, they’re big in Japan), thrashing out AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. The lead break is awesome.
FOMM will be on the road for the next four weeks so who knows what will happen!