The mighty uke

The ukulele darts back into the musical spotlight, lickety-split

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Strummin' with Tippy
Photo by Craig Lammes

MUSIC The ukulele has gone viral, again, via YouTube phenomena like the adorable Uke Kid and virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who both perform interpretations of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" — originally by George Harrison, himself a professed uke-aholic.

The history of the ukulele is choppy. It has passed through waves of cultural significance and kitsch popularity. Its origins are commonly misremembered — it first appeared in Portugal as a small Madeiran guitar. Brought by Portuguese cane workers to Hawaii in the 19th century, it was given its new name of "ukulele," which translates to "jumping flea." King Kalakaua, a major proponent of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, fell for the instrument and incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.

The ukulele floated from Honolulu to the Bay for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, where "the Hawaiian Pavilion" launched the first continental fad for Hawaiian songs and the uke. The Bay Area soon became an international gateway for the ukulele.

Today's vibrant ukulele scene continues this legacy. The current crop of Bay-based ukulele players have little connection to the instrument's Hawaiian history and utilize the uke for a wide spectrum of musical genres: the Corner Laughers play bouncy indie power pop; Tippy Canoe incorporates early country music, '30s jazz and '60s pop; Ash Reiter accents her jazz-infused indie folk with the ukulele; Uni and Her Ukelele takes ideas from burlesque dancers, comedians, light rock and soul; and in a haphazard YouTube video made by Sandy Kim, ubiquitous garage rocker Ty Segall plays a ditty on the uke.

"As soon as I picked up the uke, I started writing a song," explains vocalist-ukester Emily Ritz of HoneyComb. "Its size was perfect, and I liked the challenge of making a uke sound dirty, dark, and dangerous." Influenced by everyone from Billie Holiday to Joanna Newsom, Ritz turns the ukulele into something mysterious and haunting.

Some Bay Area ukesters emerge from the kitsch appeal that the goofy-ginger TV personality Arthur Godfrey left in his wake. Godfrey learned to play the ukulele from a Hawaiian shipmate while he was in the Navy, and when he went on television to promote the new plastic ukuleles, more than 9 million ukuleles were sold, in the second great-wave of ukulele popularity.

Camp taste has an allure, and Uni and Her Ukelele — deliberately spelled the British way, according to Uni, because "I just like how the 'e' and 'l' loop together in cursive" — mine that appeal by including mermaids, rainbows, and unicorns as subject matter. "While I was learning the basic chords on the ukulele, I found it easier to write more quirky songs," Uni explains via e-mail from New Zealand. "Fun is a good place to start."

Post Godfrey, the ukulele's second wave ended with the annoying falsetto voice of Tiny Tim. Baby boomers threw their plastic strummers into their closets, associating the instrument with all things cheesy. Many guitar distributors ceased making ukuleles during the 1990s, but a third resurgence began in the early aughts, due in part to two significant events: Paul McCartney played the instrument at a tribute concert after George Harrison's passing, and Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwoole's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" medley became familiar through countless radio-plays, movies, commercials, and weddings. Now even the iPhone has an application that mimics and teaches ukulele chords.

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