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Homage to the Humble Ukulele

UkuleleHow we ever came to have a ukulele in the house I will never know. Beyond a passive love for listening to music on the radio, stereo and television, neither of my parents were musically inclined. My brother and I learned to play large wooden xylophones at primary school, but we were more interested in playing in our back-yard sand pit or racing our homemade trolleys down the steep streets of our neighbourhood. And besides, the songs of the birds was the music I favoured as a child and I learned to whistle along with them. Who needed an instrument?

I suspect that it was our mother who slipped the ukulele into the house. She had great expectations that her boys would become musicians and/or doctors so that “you can care and sing for us when we are old”. Did she mean at the same time? It was a good plan but she was to be disappointed on both counts.

An old upright pianoAn old upright piano, complete with hinged candelabras, found its way into our house for the same reasons I am sure – albeit with a little more effort than the ukulele required. But aside from the occasional exuberant rendition of chopsticks on rainy days, the old upright suffered the same terrible fate as the ukulele and stood in silent testimony to our lack of musicality – or perhaps our disinterested laziness. At least the piano, unlike the ukulele, didn’t find its way into our toy box all the time!

The ukulele was one of those items that was always in the way but, because it was a musical instrument and, to some degree at least, seen as sacred, was never discarded. It enjoyed from us a kind of awkward reverence similar to that enjoyed by an old dog that is allowed inside to lay by the fire on frosty nights. We were always tip-toeing around it. It aged with us – complete with scratches and dents and even played the role of ‘battleship’ during bath time once or twice. Alas and alack, that ukulele was never to be fulfilled as a musical instrument though. What happened to it, I shall never know but I do hope that it went to greener pastures…

Ukulele hanging at Otara Markets in AucklandThe ukulele blipped back onto my radar screen when I visited the renowned Otara Markets in South Auckland during the late 1990s. Some Pacific Island lads were selling beautifully crafted ukuleles – not the classical ‘tiny guitar’ shape that is quite common, but ukulele in shapes and sizes that I had never seen before. A number of the marketeers were playing them and a crowd had gathered. Big smiles and the happy sounds of ‘pacifica’ filled the air. Ignorant to the bone, I had always seen the ukulele as a sort of sub-instrument – a wannabe guitar to be played in moments of light entertainment at best – or in the mode of Tiny Tim and his Tiptoe Through The Tulips at worst! (I failed to appreciate Tiny Tim when I was a youngster but, in the spirit of fairness and goodwill, there was probably more to Tiny Tim than his eccentric stage persona divulged.) My visit to the Otara markets opened my eyes a little and shed a different light on the ukulele. It is certainly an instrument synonymous with joy and good spirits and, as I was to find out, the contemporary ukulele has its roots in polynesia – Hawaiʻi in particular…

The ukulele originated in the nineteenth century as a Hawaiian interpretation of the cavaquinho, a small guitar-like instrument brought to Hawaiʻi by Portuguese immigrants. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally. […] The ukulele is commonly associated with music from Hawai‘i where the name roughly translates as “jumping flea”, perhaps due to the action of one’s fingers playing the ukulele resembling a “jumping flea”. According to Queen Lili’uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here”, from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). (Source)

Ukulele hanging at Gandharva LokaThe third blip on my ukulele radar occurred during my first visit to Gandharva Loka a few months after it opened – in the summer of 2008. In amongst the great variety, character and colour of musical instruments from all over the world, begging attention, was a covey of very colourful ukulele hanging from the ceiling. “You sell ukuleles!” I proclaimed. “Sure do!” Gandharva Loka’s proprietor, Vajin, returned. “We sell heaps of them. They are enjoying a renaissance. There are ukulele groups and people giving classes here in Christchurch and over in Lyttelton. There is even a documentary called Mighty Uke touring the movie theatres which proclaims ‘the amazing comeback of a musical underdog!'”, he told me.

Kerry McCammonVajin was right – there is a lot going on in the ukulele world. A little research on my part found that far from being a passing fad, the ukulele revival shows no sign of abating. The Muse Community Music Trust in Christchurch offers lessons with Kerry McCammon. The Christchurch library declared that the time for ukulele is upon us and have facilitated ukulele workshops. Lyttelton has it going on and hosted The Harbour Light Ukestravaganza during the Lyttelton Harbour Festival of Lights back in June.

In terms of concerts, The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra perform, tour regularly and have recorded albums. In early 2009, 3News declared “Ukulele taking New Zealand by storm” after Independent Music New Zealand reported that the album A Little Bit of Wonderful by The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra was the biggest selling New Zealand record for the month of December (2008). With a lineup of some twelve performers that includes Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Concords fame, the orchestra has a reputation for their unique Kiwi flavour and are a lot of fun. Here’s a sample:

And in news that must have the New Zealand ukulele scene plucking its heart out, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain are to tour New Zealand in late November/early December of this year. Attired in classy evening dress, they posses wonderful musicality and are very original and entertaining. They are also known for encouraging audiences to bring their ukuleles for a strum-along during their concerts. Here they are at the Royal Albert Hall in London no less…

Taking into account that the ukulele is relatively inexpensive, easy to learn, light, compact and available in a huge variety of colour, shapes and sizes, it is no wonder that this humble little instrument is experiencing a renaissance.

Gandharva Loka offers a range of ukulele – so pluck up the courage and pop down to the greatest little world instrument store in New Zealand for a look-see. Who knows? You might end being one of those who strum along with The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain when they visit Christchurch in November. And if you are, the fellow strumming beside you may be me!

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  1. […] another article, I wrote that my parents kept a number of instruments around the house when my siblings and I were […]

  2. William Bailey says:

    Nice article. We had a very similar situation in our house when I was a kid, but our ukulele also had the company of a cheap harmonica, a little xylophone and a tin kids drum. I seem t remember some kind of plastic trumpet as well. None of these were ever really played much but were always there. Ah, Kiwiana…


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