Ukulele makes a comeback

Small instrument not as silly as it seems, say players

Fun, joyful and happy are words ukulele players use to describe the allure of the little stringed instrument. Even its name sounds plucky.

“It has a happy sound,” said Juhli Jobi, who teaches ukulele lessons in Powell River. “When the strings are plucked, it’s just such a happy, sweet sound and it makes people feel happy.”

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Around Powell River, it’s often the instrument of choice when people gather around campfires.

According to those who strum, it’s a very easy instrument, which adds to its popularity among people of all ages.

“To be able to play a song on a ukulele, it’s pretty simple to learn that,” said Powell River Academy of Music instructor Ron Campbell. “To really master it and become great on it, you do have to put in a fair amount of time, but with a pretty minimal input of time you can get up to being able to play simple songs on the ukulele.”

There are masters of the ukulele who are phenomenal, said Campbell.

According to ukulele aficionados, the greatest ukulele player in the world is Jake Shimabukuro, whose repertoire includes arrangements of such popular songs as Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and George Harrison’s “While You Were Sleeping,” which went viral on YouTube. Another master of the instrument is Canada’s ukulele wunderkind James Hill.

The Internet is largely responsible for the current resurgence in people picking up the little instrument, but it was a quartette from Hawaii that first introduced it in North America in 1915. It was not until it became an icon of the Jazz Age that the ukulele really came into its own as a legitimate musical instrument.

“It was picked up in the early days, the ’20s or ’30s,” said Ann Trousdell, who started playing about four or five years ago. “The jazz community took it to places it had never been before.”

Older generations will remember Tiny Tim, said Campbell. Tiny Tim was best known for his 1968 ukulele rendition of “Tiptoe through the Tulips” that he sang in a falsetto and he was a favourite guest of Johnny Carson on late night television’s The Tonight Show.

“He popularized it, for sure,” said Campbell. “It is overlooked because of the whole persona he had, but he was actually very talented, a good player and a good singer.”

Perhaps it is the instrument’s size and sound but, according to Jobi, some people don’t take it seriously as an instrument.

“Most people look at it as a toy,” she said.

Its size does make the instrument portable, which makes it easy to take everywhere: to the beach, strapped to a backpack and taken into the backcountry on hikes, in kayaks and even on bicycles.

That is one of things that attract many people to the ukulele, according to Jobi. It is easier to tote around than a guitar.

While it is possible to play a sad song on a ukulele, it’s hard to listen without a smile, she said.

“I felt that if I pulled it out and tried to play a little something, people would be amused by it and that was all I wanted,” she said. “Ultimately, my long-term goal was to be able to bring a couple of songs to the campfire. That was the whole reason why I wanted to play it.”

Jobi teaches and brings together a ukulele circle every week in Powell River. For more information, search “Powell River Ukulele” on Facebook.

Copyright © Powell River Peak

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