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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Ukulele Strikes a New Chord

Once a kitsch staple, the instrument is being discovered by thousands of 'lapsed guitarists.' And the rebirth isn't confined to Hawaii.


HONOLULU — In the beginning there was the guitar, and the guitar ruled. There was Eric Clapton playing his hymn to "Layla," there was Jimi Hendrix celebrating the national anthem on his Stratocaster, George Harrison gently weeping on six strings.

In the middle of all that came Tiny Tim, strumming what could have been described only as a musical mutant: four sweet little strings and a diminutive body you clutched to your chest like a baby. It had a C chord you could play with one index finger and you tuned it by singing a ditty on open strings: "My Dog Has Fleas."

The ukulele captured the national imagination--for about as long as it took Tiny Tim to tiptoe through the tulips in 1968. By the 1970s, the little ukulele was once again set aside in favor of its more muscular six-stringed sibling. It was put away in garages, sold at flea markets, relegated to tiki torch hotel lounges in Hawaii and classics such as "Princess Poo-Poo-Ly Has Plenty Papaya (And She Loves to Give It Away)."

In testament to the enduring power of the ridiculous over the transcendent, the ukulele--not as melodious as a banjo, not as elegant as a mandolin, an instrument upon which power chords sound like wind chimes--is making another comeback.

By the thousands, baby boomers described by music marketers as "lapsed guitarists" are admitting to themselves that they will never stretch their fingers into a guitar F chord again and are buying ukuleles instead. They're going to workshops, spending $10,000 on rare collector models, buying uke CDs.

"The uke is coming out of the closet," says Ian Whitcomb of Altadena, a ukulele musician, songwriter and musical historian. After years of relative anonymity, Whitcomb now plays gigs all over town and has written ukulele tracks for movies such as "Stanley's Gig" and "The Cat's Meow." This summer, he was invited to the prestigious Oregon Festival of Music., based in Texas, gets as many as 15,000 hits a month from places as far away as Namibia, Peru and Macedonia. In Japan, Hawaiian uke stars sell out concerts and home-grown celebrities such as Yuji Igarashi and Kazuyuki Sekiguchi attract standing-room-only crowds.

In the U.S., a Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum is in the planning stages on the East Coast (a site has not yet been identified). Ukulele workshops are scheduled this month in Illinois, Missouri and New Jersey; and in Santa Monica, McCabe's Guitar Shop recently sold out its annual UKEtopia concert, attracting the biggest turnout ever for an evening of ukulele gospel and roots music, titled "O Strummer, Where Art Thou?" Southern California's first ukulele festival is scheduled for Oct. 19 at Tracy High School in Cerritos and the Artesia Community Center.

Nowhere, though, has the ukulele become so much a cultural institution as in Hawaii. After long years of exile in tourist hotels with the old guys in flowered shirts, the ukulele in the last few years has become hip, the instrument a new generation of Hawaiians has adapted as a modern rock art form and a statement of Hawaiian pride.

Young Hawaiians are flocking to the hyper-uke sound of 25-year-old Jake Shimabukuro of Oahu, whose intense, whirlwind strumming has been compared to Hendrix's. (He even does an electric version of "The Star-Spangled Banner," following it with Niccolo Paganini's "Caprice No. 24," a classical violin piece.)

In Hawaii, the resurgence took off in a big way in 1991, when Troy Fernandez of the Ka'au Crater Boys stunned young audiences by playing an electrified uke like a lead guitar: hot and fast. Around the same time, a 700-pound ukulele songster named Israel Kamakawiwo'ole became wildly popular in Hawaii--and developed a large cult following on the mainland as well--after his gentle single "Over the Rainbow" hit the charts and served as background music in EToys commercials. (The song was later featured in the NBC show "ER.") "Iz," as he is known, claimed he was "a Hawaiian man with a heart 10 times bigger than his body," and when he died in 1997, 20,000 people came to his memorial in the state Capitol rotunda.

Musicians used the ukulele to sing about the growing ethnic consciousness of native Hawaiians, in songs such as "Maui Hawaiian Sup'pa Man." At the same time, a new generation in Hawaii and on the mainland began to rediscover old standards such as the famous "Aloha Oe," with words penned by Hawaii's last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani.

"Part of what's going on is the renaissance of Hawaiian music from back in the '50s," says Mike Young, a Unitarian minister in Honolulu whose son plays a $400 Kamaka ukulele. "On any given day now, for no reason in particular, roughly half the kids at school here will have ukes in their hand, playing them at recess."

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