Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Plinking and plucking the perfect little instrument

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
May/June, 2010

On the final Saturday of each month, Larsen Music dedicates a few hours to free instruction for the public.

The family-owned business encourages music lovers to try their chops. Should a budding trombonist stick with the instrument, well, as it happens Larsen has in stock a fine selection of instruments.

Earlier this year, it seemed a propitious time to offer a free ukulele lesson. The store had plenty of ukes on hand.

Come to our uke workshop, the shop urged. Bring your ukulele, or borrow one of ours. We’ll jam.
The first hint of the popularity of the invitation was the sheer number of telephone calls.

Figuring the session was going to attract a larger audience than usual, the staff cleared away about half the floor space.

On the big day, they quickly realized they would need more space.

The uke is on the cusp of a global revival. Who knew?

Until recently, the ukulele has been the Rodney Dangerfield of stringed instruments, a children’s plaything that looks like a guitar left out in the rain.

The four-string instrument is associated with Hawaii, where it developed after the arrival of a shipload of Portuguese immigrants in 1879. Among them were three instrument makers. Popular lore has it that a musician celebrated the ship’s landing in the Pacific paradise by playing frenzied folk tunes on his cavaquinho, a small, four-stringed instrument.

In time, the locals developed a modified version of their own, some with a narrow waist, like a minitaure guitar, others with a gently rounded body like a pineapple. A native wood, koa, lent itself to the instrument, which came to be called the ukulele, or “dancing flea,” after the demented motion of fast-moving fingers plucking the strings.

The ukulele likely made its way to British Columbia with sailors and Kanaka immigrants, the contract labourers from Hawaii who eventually established communities in Victoria, Maple Ridge, and Salt Spring Island.

Ukulele fever swept North America after Jonah Kumalae presented his instruments at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. His performances at the Hawaii pavilion captured the public imagination. Soon, all kinds of parlour musicians were taking up the easy-to-learn instrument, a fad still apparent in the sheet music of the 1920s.

The instrument waned in popularity before enjoying a revival sparked by servicemen returning from the American naval base in Hawaii. Polynesian-themes restaurants offering mai tais and other umbrella-laden drinks were the height of sophisticated exotica in the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when a mellow, easy-listening Hawaiian musician named Don (“Tiny Bubbles”) Ho became a well-known cultural figure, appearing in cameos on several hit television shows. The lei-bedecked Ho played Hammond organ, but his band made good use of the ukulele as both prop and instrument.

In retrospect, the uke was doomed when Bob Dylan, of all people, went electric, acoustic strings overwhelmed by the guitar-bass-drums lineup of rock groups. Only a few years later, the ukulele was reduced in status to a novelty instrument played by such plucky acts as the falsetto-singing Tiny Tim, who tiptoed through the tulips while strumming.

For the next four decades, the ukulele remained a little-regarded instrument most often used to introduce children to music.

“It was always a sort of peripheral thing. Hangs on the wall,” says the musician Paul Laverick, an English-born, 32-year-old guitarist who helped organize the ukulele workshop at Larsen.

“Yet, it’s portable. It’s easy to work out chords and rhythms. It’s a good little cool instrument. It’s almost perfect.” Unlike the recorder, you can also sing while playing.

He attributes its recent popularity to a return to folk music and kitchen concerts, as ukes, banjos and mandolins find an audience weary of arena extravaganza.

Back in his native land, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, formed in 1985, has helped revive interest following tours of North America. A shop in London is called the “Duke of Uke,” while a player in California calls himself Cool Hand Uke. The instrument just seems like fun.

Not to mention that teaching it is as easy as child’s play.

“I can get a group playing and singing within an hour,” Laverick pronounces.

So, on a Saturday afternoon, novice uke players aged from seven to 75 began to file into the music store. The staff counted the arrivals — one dozen, two dozen, three dozen. More flocked into the shop as the staff hurriedly cleared the entire sales floor.

In time, more than six dozen aspiring musicians jammed into the space. Folks filled every rental chair. They lined up against the wall, stood behind the cash counter, blocked the windows at the rear of the room. Some shared music stands, while others balanced sheet music on their knee, furiously turning a page mid-strum.

Their instructor taught a handful of basic chords, then instructed the pupils in what can be thought of as the ukulele’s greatest hits — “You Are M Sunshine” and “Oh! Susanna.”

The makeshift ensemble sang, “I come from Alabama with my banjo on my knee.”

“OK, so the third verse,” Laverick said, giving instruction while plinking away. “You just go from C to G again. Here we go.”

They did so. Then, they played “Stand By Me,” the Ben E. King tune, and the irresistible “Over the Rainbow,” the ballad from “The Wizard of Oz.”

“That’s one of the songs where everyone who hears it,” Laverick said, “wants to buy a ukulele.”

He’s right. For me, the first plinks place me amidst palms and Polynesians on a Pacific island. It sounds even better when used to cover a familiar rock tune. Sure, it’s a bit comical at first, but the uke is a versatile instrument.

Laverick has performed on his favourite ukulele Stevie Wonders’ “Superstition,” as well as songs by Tom Waits and Dylan, bringing the Bobster back to his roots.

A Victoria Ukulele Circle meets every Wednesday at the Esquimalt Recreation Centre and local instructors are thinking of organizing a uke festival for next year.

Sometimes, Laverick images recruiting an army of ukulele-strumming acolytes, spreading the word about the perfect little instrument anyone can play.