Wednesday, June 13, 2012


Over the past ten years the ukulele has been enjoying unprecedented popularity. Not since the 1960’s has the instrument received a fraction of the attention it currently boasts. Within popular culture it can currently be found being played by popular musicians such as Paul McCartney, Amanda Palmer, and Eddie Vedder, and by popular actors Zooey Deschanel and William H Macy. Even Omaha resident Warren Buffett has been known as a ukulele enthusiast for years. In addition to this, the ukulele is now starting to be used in the classroom setting by music teachers all over the country. So where did this instrument come from and why is it now so popular? I’m glad you asked.

The ukulele originated in Hawaii in the 1880’s. It is a combination of two Portuguese guitar-like instruments: the four-stringed cavaquinho and the five-stringed rajao.  While the modern ukulele has four strings like the cavaquinho, it is tuned in fourths like the rajao making the string tuning G-C-E-A. Within the Hawaiian culture, the instrument was promoted to prominence by King Kalākaua; a well known patron of the arts and writer of “Hawaii Ponoi,” the state song of Hawaii. It is because of his influence that the ukulele became synonymous with Hawaiian music and culture and has remained thus for the past one hundred and thirty years.

In the continental United States, the ukulele first came on the scene in 1915 when it was featured at the Hawaiian Pavilion of the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. From there it was picked up in Hawaiian themed Tin Pan Alley songs and by vaudeville performers. It was also used somewhat in early jazz music, but did not have a huge surge in public notoriety until the 1960’s. At this point the ukulele’s popularity was cultivated by use on the Arthur Godfrey Show as well as by Tiny Tim with his famous hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

In 2003 the ukulele was brought back to the limelight by Israel Kamakowiwo’ole’s recording of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This was reinforced and brought to the youth of pop culture by Jason Castro’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on American Idol in 2008.

In addition to being promoted to the youth of America as a now hip instrument, the ukulele is quite affordable. As opposed to acoustic guitars, which can range anywhere from $200 to over $2500, ukuleles can be bought for under $100; which is obviously a huge benefit in today’s economy. They are also much more portable than regular guitars. Music teachers love the ukulele not only because of its affordability, but also because it is easy to learn and appropriate for all ages. It also promotes the musical multi-tasking skill of singing while playing and is FUN!

So whether you’re looking for a cultural music experience, wanting to broaden your knowledge of stringed instruments, or simply wanting to entertain yourself by the pool on a sunny summer day, the ukulele may just be exactly what you’ve been waiting for.

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