'The Mighty Uke': A Musical Underdog Makes A Comeback The ukulele has many thousands of fans the world over, but the small four-stringed instrument has been the butt of countless jokes and insults. A new documentary, The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog, demonstrates that the once-maligned instrument is back on the rise.
NPR logo

'The Mighty Uke': A Musical Underdog Makes A Comeback

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127116452/127468423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'The Mighty Uke': A Musical Underdog Makes A Comeback

'The Mighty Uke': A Musical Underdog Makes A Comeback

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/127116452/127468423" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


There may be trouble in the world and oil in the Gulf, but at least we can tell you that the ukulele is making a comeback. You know, the instrument played by Tiny Tim and at least two Beatles, and even mega-zillionaire Warren Buffett, along with thousands of fans around the world - that small four-stringed instrument thats been the butt of countless jokes and insults.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports on its resurgence.

SUSAN STAMBERG: When I grew up in the 1950s, there was a ukulele craze, and had to get one. And now, I have not touched this instrument since I was maybe 17 years old.

(Soundbite of song, "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?")

STAMBERG: I know, it needs work. The ukulele can sound like this.

(Soundbite of music by ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro)

STAMBERG: Jake Shimabukuro started playing when he was four.

(Soundbite of ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro)

Mr. TONY COLEMAN (Director, "The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog"): We called that ukulele shock and awe.

STAMBERG: Tony Coleman is director of "The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog," a documentary film about this old instrument, that in its revival, is sounding very new.

(Soundbite of song, "Remedy")

Mr. JON BRAMAN (Singer/Songwriter/Musician): (Singing) My buddy, my man, my partner, my dude, my homey, my first compadre, no kind of emotion or reason or logic can explain the way that we linked it we locked it...

STAMBERG: Tony filmed New York hip-hop artist, Jon Braman.

Mr. COLEMAN: He found this uke in the garbage and discovered a career path.

Mr. JAMES HILL (Songwriter/Musician): I love when he says: I dont think I would have discovered hip-hop without the ukulele.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Remedy")

Mr. BRAMAN: (Singing) ...had your accordion and it was no surprise that we would be friends.

STAMBERG: That second voice is 29-year-old Canadian virtuoso James Hill, also featured in the documentary. James performs regularly and composes. Here's his "One Small Suite for Ukulele."

(Soundbite of song, "One Small Suite for Ukulele")

STAMBERG: James Hill began playing the uke when he was eight. He had to. For decades in many elementary schools across Canada, the inexpensive uke has been used to teach music.

Mr. HILL: When I got to grade four, they just handed me a ukulele. It was just part of your standard-issue, kind of, school equipment. And that was, in a way, the best thing that ever happened to me.

(Soundbite of song, "One Small Suite for Ukulele")

STAMBERG: The uke is easy to play - although, as James points out, it's not easy to play well. And playing very well, James Hill launched a career, performing and helping to create a uke-based curriculum for music teachers.

Adorable, really - only Canada would hand a kid a uke and say it's mandatory. In some mean American eyes, ukulele and Canada are a redundancy. Both are corny, a bit quaint, decent.

James says that kind of accessible musical decency creates community.

Mr. HILL: When people come to a ukulele performance, more often than not, they will bring with them their ukuleles. And they'll sit there in the audience waiting for the moment where they are asked to join in. And contrast that with the symphony. You know, when people come to the symphony, nobody brings their oboe.

(Soundbite of song, "Keep on the Sunny Side of Life")

CHORUS: (Singing) There's a dark and a troubled side of life. There's a bright and a sunny side, too. Though...

STAMBERG: There's a ukulele revolution going on these days; group performances, concerts, classes. Filmmaker Tony Coleman says this alternate musical universe began a decade ago.

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Mr. COLEMAN: Back in the '90s, there was an Hawaiian artist named Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. He sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and I think that really charmed a lot of people.

(Soundbite of song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow")

Mr. ISRAEL KAMAKAWIWO'OLE (Singer/Musician): (Singing) Ooh, somewhere over the rainbow, way up high...

STAMBERG: Then in 2002, Paul McCartney - in a tribute to the late George Harrison, who loved the ukulele - played one on stage.

(Soundbite of song, "Something")

Sir Paul MCCARTNEY (Singer/Songwriter/Musician): (Singing) Something in the way she moves...

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. MCCARTNEY: (Singing) ..attracts me like no other lover. Something in the way she woos me...

STAMBERG: The next day, uke started selling to a new generation of players.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Somewhere in my wooden hole just waiting far across the universe...

STAMBERG: The ukulele has charmed people, off and on, for more than a century. In the late 1800s, to escape drought and poverty, thousands of Portuguese left the island of Madeira and headed for Hawaii. They brought their small stringed wooden instruments with them. In Hawaii, the instrument changed a bit and got a new name: ukulele. One translation: The gift that came here. And hula dancers began swaying to it.

(Soundbite of a music)

STAMBERG: On the mainland, around 1915, uke crazed Americans danced, sang and accessorized the instruments with raccoon coats and bowties. That craze faded in the '30s and bloomed again 20 years later, when Arthur Godfrey strummed it on TV.

(Soundbite of song, "Making Love Ukulele Style")

Mr. ARTHUR GODFREY (Broadcaster): (Singing) Strolling along beneath the starlight. Dreaming a lover's dream for two...

STAMBERG: Then the rock 'n roll guitar pushed the uke into nerdy obscurity. And now this new craze.

Tony Coleman hopes his documentary, "The Mighty Uke," will help ensure the lasting quality of this big-hearted little instrument, with its ability to create communities of happy music-makers. There are uke clubs in Canada, Japan, Australia, England, France, the U.S., all over the place.

Tony thinks the uke is good for our health.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. COLEMAN: For centuries, music was an integral part of our lives. All of us played music. And the beginning of the 20th century, the record player came along, and all of a sudden we weren't good enough anymore. We were encouraged to listen. We were encouraged to be passive listeners. And I think that we lost something very fundamental to our souls: making music together.

Today, the ukulele is allowing us to rediscover this simple joy of music self-play - together.

Unidentified Man: Ready, one, two, one and...

(Soundbite of song, "Flight of the Bumblebees")

STAMBERG: Im Susan Stamberg. NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Flight of the Bumblebees")

INSKEEP: You're hearing a student ukulele ensemble from Langley, British Columbia. You can find out where "The Mighty Uke" is screening next, go to NPRMusic.org.

Im Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.