Disclosure: as noted in my bio, I’m a ukulele player. In fact, I’m the co-founder and co-host of the Corktown Ukulele Jam. So when I tell you that the hottest thing on the Internet these days is the ukulele, I’m biased. And when I argue that Canada is playing a special part in the “third wave” of ukulele popularity, I’m being parochial as well.
But I wouldn’t be outing myself as a uke player, right here at the desk of my corporate day job, if I didn’t think there was an important story to tell. Truth is, what we at CUKE like to call Ukulele 3.0 is a verifiable web phenomenon.
Take a quick glance at BoingBoing.net, the most popular blog in the English language and a trendsetter for all things online. Their frequent posts of ukulele videos have helped fuel a resurgence of the instrument among geeks. Mark Frauenfelder, the uke-craziest of the BoingBoing bloggers, is also the man behind the uke-fanatic site Ukulelia. There are dozens such sites, and they’re mushrooming these days.
It’s no surprise, really, that the uke is regaining its popularity: it’s an ideal instrument for modern, time-challenged people with high bandwidth internet connections. You can pick one up and learn to play it passably just by spending a few hours on YouTube, where videos by Jake Shimabukuro and Israel Kamakawiwo’Ole and the late, great John King have earned clicks in the millions. Not to mention classic performances by the legendary vaudevillian Roy Smeck, his cheeky English counterpart George Formby, and Ukulele Ike, aka Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket.
Offline, the uke is a cheap, portable instrument that accompanies a single human voice perfectly. In a world where people are too often too alienated from one another and suffering for a lack of music, the uke offers an easy antidote. I could go on about that, and have, in this ukulele sermon.
The previous wave of uke fandom in the fifties had to do with the miracle of television: Arthur Godfrey ukuleles were once household items more popular than guitars. Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe both appeared in films playing ukulele and the instrument was popular with the surf crowd well into the sixties. Not to mention that musicians from Pete Seeger to Jimi Hendrix got their starts as child uke players. Some claim Tiny Tim inadvertently killed the second wave by turning the instrument into a novelty act; personally, I’m with Bob Dylan in giving huge props to a guy who was a walking encyclopedia of early 20th century songs.
Many of those songs sprang from the era of the first wave of ukulele, when radio and recording technology fueled a craze on the mainland for the gorgeous sounds of Hawaii after the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. So uke and tech have always gone hand in hand, which is why I come by my ukulele acquisition syndrome honestly.
But here in Canada there’s another layer to the ukulele story. Those familiar with Juno-winning Nova Scotian songstress Melanie Doane may know of her fondness for the uke, as featured in a recent CBC radio interview. What they may not know is that Melanie’s dad, Chalmers Doane, Member of the Order of Canada, created a Canadian ukulele phenomenon in the 70s and 80s through his passionate advocacy of ukuleles in schools. One of those kids – James Hill, the man Stuart McLean (a uke player himself) called “the Wayne Gretzky of the ukulele” – is carrying on the tradition with Ukulele in the Classroom, a complete ukulele pedagogy developed with Doane.
Events like the annual Ukulele Ceilidh in Nova Scotia and weekly and monthly meetups across the country are fueling the fanaticism. It was at the Great Canadian Ukulele Expo in Winnipeg a few years back, hosted by my friend and ukulele mentor Manitoba Hal, that I first met James Hill, along with Vancouver’s Ralph Shaw, King of the Ukulele, and Smeck’s own student Joel Eckhaus.
Not to mention that the first of the BoingBoing “cute uke girls” was a Canadian lass by the name of ukulelezo whose famous fondness for moustaches has made her a household name among the Uke 3.0 crowd. I’m personally rather proud of the performances of the Corktown Ukulele Jam on YouTube, of which a uke-playing hoola-hooper playing Bob Marley is only one of many highlights. And then there’s The Mighty Uke, a Canadian production that captures a global phenomenon…
I’m one of the children of the Canadian ukulele craze myself. I played uke in Grade 4 music class, and though I foolishly abandoned the little instrument for a guitar in my teens, a trip to Fiji in 2002 refueled my love for the “jumping flea” and I was soon hooked again. The uke changed my songwriting, brightened my life and generally made me a better person. As major uke fan George Harrison noted, it’s impossible to be depressed when you’re playing a uke. I’ve tried not to let it interfere with my work life… but in light of Ukulele 3.0, I guess I can justify it now. Just like Warren Buffet, uke lover. Thank God. Living a double life was killing me. And anyway, now that Bruce Springsteen, Jack Johnson and Eddie Veder are uke players and Elvis Costello, Paul McCartney, and David Byrne think it’s hip to strum a uke I figure I’m in good company.