The Uke

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This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Recently, I was walking in a crowded San Francisco farmers' market. While checking out the strawberries, I heard three female voices cut through the din of shoppers. These ladies were good! Singing in vocal harmony, each played a ukulele, in a style befitting of the Andrew Sisters. It was a local band called The Paper Dolls. You can check them out on my KCRW page.


I started thinking about the ukes. The ukulele has wandered in and out of popularity over the last century. The Portuguese first created a version of the small guitar, called a cavaquinho in the mid 19th Century. Hawaiians modified the instrument, and named it the ukulele, which translates as "jumping flea." The name refers not only to the instrument's small size, but also how fingers jump across the frets.

It became popularized in the mainland in 1915, when the instrument took center stage at San Francisco Panama Pacific Exposition. Over 17 million people saw the ukulele in action. The long running festival started a Hawaiian music craze in America, which seems to recur every couple of decades.

It's not just Hawaiians who love the small four-string instrument. There are players in Israel, France, Austria, Belgium – just about every European country, plus the islands, Malaysia, China, and of course all the 50 states.

In fact, musicians who have popularized the uke would make very strange bedfellows. Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy, The Andrew Sisters, Tiny Tim, Steve Martin, Jason Mraz, Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney, Amanda Palmer -- and the list goes on and on. Even financier Warren Buffet plays one.

Perhaps the instrument is so popular because it's not a difficult to master. Home videos of uke players abound on YouTube –over 100,000 of them in fact.

And music score is easily available. You can learn to play Black Sabbath's "Paranoid." Or how about Owl City's "Fireflies?" In fact, ukulele sheet music is already available online for just about every popular band.

Despite the widespread interest, only a handful of players have established themselves with vision. One of the most interesting performers is Jake Shimabukuro. Jake is from Hawaii, but literally travels the world on his ukulele playing. His YouTube performance of the George Harrison song "My Guitar Gentle Weeps" is widely recognized as the definitive ukulele version. Jake will be in Los Angeles in mid October, at New York's Highline in late October and San Francisco in March, 2011. Go to my page at KCRW for links to his videos and tour schedule.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.