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
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
video
Life and Style
tech
Sport
Jodie Stimpson crosses the finishing line to win gold in the women's triathlon
Commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
News
John Barrowman kisses his male “bride” at a mock Gretna Green during the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony
peopleBarrowman's opening ceremony message to Commonwealth countries where he would be sent to prison for being gay
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan stars as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey movie
filmFirst look at Jamie Dornan in Fifty Shades of Grey trailor
Life and Style
Phillips Idowu, Stella McCartney and Jessica Ennis
fashionMcCartney to continue designing Team GB Olympics kit until 2016
Sport
Shinji Kagawa and Reece James celebrate after the latter scores in Manchester United's 7-0 victory over LA Galaxy
football
Sport
Farah returns to the track with something to prove
Commonwealth games
Voices
voicesGood for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, writes Grace Dent
Life and Style
fashion Designs are part of feminist art project by a British student
Arts and Entertainment
The Tour de France peloton rides over a bridge on the Grinton Moor, Yorkshire, earlier this month
film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£21000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Do you think you are read...

Cover Supervisor

£60 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: The JobSeveral cover supervisors ...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£55 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are seeking special needs...

Modern Foreign Languages Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Sheffield: MFL teacher Required in Don...

Day In a Page

Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game