July 25, 2009


Ukuleles have gone viral: YouTube videos, online how-tos and social networking fuel the musical instrument's renewed popularity. (Dan Fost, July 25, 2009, LA Times)

[U]kulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, already big in Hawaii, the uke's homeland, became a nationwide sensation with his wailin’ on Harrison’s “My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which has attracted more than 3 million hits on YouTube since 2006 and earned him tours with Jimmy Buffett, a recording session with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and various television appearances.

As with so many groups the Internet has helped to foster, Ukulele lovers have been searching for like-minded folks among isolated pockets of uke players and creating online communities. Beloff's website Flea Market Music hosts a directory of more than 3,000 ukulele players so they can find one another in their local communities. Good ukes, once hard to find, are popping up on EBay.

"There are a lot of ukulele specialty websites," uke maker Upton said. "For years, music stores didn't carry them."

The website Ukulele Underground posts YouTube videos and ukulele reviews and hosts spirited discussions about concerts, techniques, instruments and everything else a ukulele fan would want. Last year, the Underground staff posted a video lesson on how to play Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” on the uke, saying, "We're blasting [Don Ho's] 'Tiny Bubbles' right out of the water."

The novelty aspect still exists, as anyone who listens to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain can attest. Picture eight men in tuxedos, strumming and picking the tune of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit." [...]

Ukuleles were a rage in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, when radio and television host Arthur Godfrey made the instrument a hit. But falsetto-voiced Tiny Tim turned it nearly into a joke, and ukes fell out of favor. In 1993, C.F. Martin made only four ukuleles and quit the business the next year. It resumed manufacturing in 2001 -- the year George Harrison died.

The online Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum appeared in 1996. Given the Web's role in the instrument's comeback, the museum's existence in the virtual world seems appropriate.

The Internet has certainly been kind to Shimabukuro, 32.

In 2006, he sat in Central Park in New York and played a sizzling version of Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," thinking it was only for an obscure local television show called "Ukulele Disco."

"To this day, I don't know how it got on YouTube," he said. "Because of that four-minute video clip, I've been having opportunities to travel, to record with Yo-Yo Ma, to tour with Jimmy Buffett, to record with Fleck and the Flecktones. It's just been a dream come true. It's been a real blessing."

Shimabukuro now autographs young people's ukuleles at his shows, where he plays mostly his own compositions in a variety of genres: flamenco, bluegrass, Latin jazz and even Eddie Van Halen-style hard rock. If he's a pied piper of the ukulele, it's a mantle he is happy to wear.

"If everyone owned an ukulele," he said, pronouncing it "ooh-koo-LAY-lay" in the Hawaiian fashion, "this world would be such a peaceful place."

Tough to beat Iz and John King:

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 25, 2009 7:32 AM
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