Even In Bleak Times, The Ukulele Thrives Some music shops have reported that sales of musical instruments are down 20 percent nationally. But even in that climate, ukuleles are flying off the shelves at retailers from Michigan to California.
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Even In Bleak Times, The Ukulele Thrives

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Even In Bleak Times, The Ukulele Thrives

Even In Bleak Times, The Ukulele Thrives

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  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

When times are tough, people cut back on spending. But there's one little item that's been selling quite well lately. Kyle Norris of Michigan Radio explains why the ukulele is gaining new fans and players.

KYLE NORRIS: We are at the Ukulele Jam. It's at Oz's Music in Ann Arbor.

(Soundbite of singing)

NORRIS: About 20 people are packed into a cozy studio. Everyone strums a ukulele and they are cruising through song after singable song.

(Soundbite of singing)

NORRIS: Danielle Willner wears a ukulele necklace. She's got a ukulele tattoo, And at 22 she's one of the younger people at tonight's jam. Willner recently got laid off from her job at a café.

Ms. DANIELLE WILLNER (Musician): I had a really rough time with it and I wasn't sure what I was going to do. The economy's not great here in Michigan. And I went home and I pretty much played for like three days straight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WILLNER: Just to kind of help me get through the initial shock.

NORRIS: She said playing the ukulele helped her take her mind off not having a job and helped her focus on something more productive.

Stan Werbin sells ukuleles. He owns Elderly Instruments in Lansing.

Mr. STAN WERBIN (Owner, Elderly Instruments): I would say this year, based on what I'm seeing here, we're probably up 10 to 15 percent.

NORRIS: He says as a business owner that's a big deal, because overall instrument sales are down by about 20 percent. Nationally, ukulele sales are up as well.

Mike Upton is selling ukuleles faster than he can make them. Upton is president of Kala Ukulele in California. His sales of ukuleles are up 76 percent from 2007 to 2008. Upton says ukuleles, they don't cost a ton of money. You can get a decent instrument for around 30 bucks. And then you have the ukulele sound.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

NORRIS: When a lot of people think of the ukulele, they think Hawaii, sort of that tropical good vibe. But actually, the ukulele was brought to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. Upton calls the ukulele's tone bright and beautiful.

Mr. MIKE UPTON (Owner, Kala Ukulele): Just the sound of the instrument is wonderful. It just has a happy sound. It's tuned to a major key.

(Soundbite of ukulele)

Mr. UPTON: When you strum it open, it's hard to be sad, when you're playing a ukulele.

(Soundbite of song singing)

NORRIS: Back at the jam, the musicians have been playing nonstop for two hours. John McAuliffe is one of the jamming musicians.

Mr. JOHN MCAULIFFE (Musician): If you've had a rough day, whatever you're doing, if you're working or if you've got difficulties, you pick up the ukulele and you strum it a few times, and you pick out a song you want to try, and all of a sudden things are better.

NORRIS: He says playing the ukulele might not make things better forever, but for the moment it can, and for him it does.

For NPR News, I'm Kyle Norris.

(Soundbite of ukulele music)

SIMON: You can hear more ukulele music, if you really want to, on our Web site, NPRmusic.org. This is NPR News.

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