Whenever somebody asks me if I play a musical instrument, my partially true answer is “oh yes, I play the ukulele!”. Usually, a pause follows. Sometimes it’s very funny to see the blank face of the person I’m talking to. Conversation often stops there, or goes on like this: “Oh, sure, the ukulele… what is it?!”
Once I was playing a game in a first class. Every time I told my pupils the name of a musical instrument, they had to mime the action of playing it. You should have seen the gestures they made when I said “ukulele”!
But why is this UPO (Unidentified Playing Object) so peculiar? And what is its story?
Everything started in 1879, when a British ship called the Ravenscrag arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii. The ship was full of Madeiran immigrants (Madeira is a small Portuguese island lost in the Atlantic Ocean). Passengers were very happy to touch ground, after a four-month navigation; one of them started playing a Madeiran traditional instrument, a sort of small four-stringed guitar (strings were made of catgut) called “machete”. The natives were impressed by the lively sound of the instrument, as well as by the player’s fingers moving on the fretboard and named it jumping flea (ukulele, in Hawaiian language).
In a very short time, with some slight modifications, the ukulele became the Hawaiian national instrument, patronized by King David Kalakaua and his family, who were all accomplished players and composers.
After the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown by the U.S.A., the ukulele arrived in America (the Mainland, as it was called in those days). The official date was 1915, and the circumstance was the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The Hawaiian pavilion, with its hula dancers and uke players struck the fantasy of the visiting public, and a real ukulele craze started all over America. Besides its obvious exotic charm, the ukulele came to represent the wild and optimistic society of the 1920s (the so-called jazz age); then it was slowly forgotten.
Despite a certain revival in the early 1950s and the short-lived success of a singer called Tiny Tim in 1968, it has remained an underground cult for decades, resurfacing in the mid-1990s and establishing itself as a real subculture with values, symbols and heroes (the old ones, like Roy Smeck, Cliff Edwards or Bill Tapia, but also the new virtuosos like James Hill or Jake Shimabukuro).
Today, we have ukulele players playing every possible kind of music, from old-time blues to jazz, from classical to heavy metal (we have some fantastic players in Italy, too!).
Getting started is one of the easiest things to do. The only real difficulty you have to face is when you tell people you play the ukulele. If you can bear some puzzled looks or, even worse, phrases like “Oh, I know, it’s a toy!”, then the aloha spirit is with you: your strumming will resonate with the elements and you will become a part of an ongoing tradition.
Somewhere, over the rainbow, King Kalakaua will be smiling.