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
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The Independent Online

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.

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