With my little ukelele: A revolution in music for youth

It's small, cheap and easy to pick up: no wonder the instrument made famous by George Formby is fast becoming one of the most popular ways to learn music in school. By Andy McSmith

Forget the recorder, the kazoo, or the loo paper wrapped around a nylon comb. Today's cheap and cheerful instrument for the child who wants to play music without having to do hours of practice is the ukulele.

Smaller than a banjo, it is easy to learn because it has only four strings, is cheaper than a more sophisticated instrument like a cello or an oboe and is becoming the instrument of choice in a growing number of schools.

Ane Larsen, who directs the Kitchen School of Music project in east London, said: "We have a couple of teachers who teach the ukulele to whole classes at a time, and we run workshops.

"We are definitely seeing more interest in the ukulele. It is very easy to learn to handle and easy to learn to play, which is why it is becoming popular."

One sign of that popularity is the soaring interest in Jake Shimabukuro, a Japanese-Hawaiian ukulele player. His rendering of George Harrison's song 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' has been watched more than three million times on the internet. "We have a lot of people coming into the shop saying they want to play like Jake," said Larsen. "He has given the ukulele a different image."

Less well known but every bit as serious is classical musician John King, who teaches music at a university in Florida. He has arranged works by Bach, Mozart, Vivaldi and others for the ukulele. But musicians such as King and Shimabukuro are struggling to change the perception that the ukulele is played only for laughs.

In Britain, people of a certain age associate the instrument with the Wigan-born comedian and singer, George Formby, whose career lasted 40 years until his death in 1961. During the Second World War, he is reputed to have performed in front of three million Allied servicemen. His signature instrument was a cross between a ukulele and a banjo that he called a "banjulele". The Americans, meanwhile, link the instrument to an over-the-top 1960s novelty act called Tiny Tim. Nearly 40 years ago, he made a bizarre appearance on the Rowan And Martin Laugh-In show, singing 'Tip Toe Through The Tulips' in a tuneless falsetto to his badly-played ukulele. That performance is another favourite on YouTube, where it has had more than 330,000 viewings. Purists, however, say Tiny Tim did the ukulele a disservice.

"Some people still have this stereotype that the uke is a joke instrument Tiny Tim played. They think it's like a harmonica or kazoo and cannot imagine serious music being played on it," the Californian jazz player, Dan "Soybean" Sawyer, complained recently to the Los Angeles Times. One place where the ukulele is not a joke but an instrument for highly-skilled musicians is Hawaii. In 1915, visitors to the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco noticed strange, haunting music coming from the Hawaiian exhibition stand.

The islanders were playing an instrument almost no American had seen or heard before. It was based on a stringed instrument played on the Portuguese island of Madeira, which had been introduced to Hawaii in the 1870s. The islanders called it the ukelele, meaning "little flea", presumably in recognition of the speed at which a player's fingers move.

For a decade, Americans could not get enough of the ukulele or Hawaiian music, which in 1916 outsold all other forms of music on the US mainland. In the roaring Twenties, a ukulele was almost a fashion accessory but it suddenly fell out of fashion when the Depression of the 1930s came and impoverished people concentrated on the grim business of finding work.

Back in Hawaii, though, pride in the national instrument has never waned. Should you happen to be near Waikiki Beach on O'ahu on Saturday 17 November, be sure to book dinner at the Waimanalo Country Buffet where, for a little over £20 per head, you can experience a whole evening of Hawaiian ukulele music.

If you feel very brave, you can even bring along your own instrument and take to the stage to perform to an audience of ukulele connoisseurs, if you dare.

Four-string heroes

George Formby

Born in Wigan in 1904, the music hall star become one of the world's highest-paid entertainers. He made 22 films and often played an inept anti-hero who usually got the girl, accompanying himself on the 'banjulele' with songs such as 'Leaning On A Lamp Post'.

Marilyn Monroe

In the comedy film Some Like It Hot, Monroe was the singer and ukulele player in the all-female band infiltrated by the cross-dressing Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. The band's rendering of 'Running Wild' was a big hit.

Jake Shimabukuro

Born in Hawaii in 1976, the fifth-generation Japanese-American was given a ukulele at four. He first found fame in a Hawaiian jazz trio before going solo in 2000. He is a superstar in Japan.

Tiny Tim

The US singer, real name Herbert Khaury, started performing in the 1960s in Greenwich Village, New York, where the hippies loved his act. When his style went out of fashion, he joined a circus.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
video
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 by Georgia O'Keeffe
art
Sport
Robin van Persie leaves the field at the King Power Stadium last Sunday
football
Arts and Entertainment
tvPresenter back after daughter's Halloween accident
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch as John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock
tv

Co-creator Mark Gatiss dropped some very intriguing hints ahead of the BBC drama's return next year

News
people

London 'needs affordable housing'

News
In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion.
news

Arts and Entertainment
Timeshift: The Ladybird Books Story (9pm BBC4 Sun 22 Dec)
BooksLadybird drops branding books for boys and girls
Arts and Entertainment
music Band accidentally drops four-letter description at concert
News
news
Life and Style
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Randstad Education Cardiff: Maths Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: We are currently recruiting f...

Randstad Education Cardiff: Science Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Science Teacher -Full Time - ...

Randstad Education Cardiff: After School Club Worker

£40 - £45 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: The Job: Our client in the Newp...

Randstad Education Cardiff: English Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Randstad Education Cardiff is...

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines