The mighty uke

Pub date January 20, 2010

MUSIC The ukulele has gone viral, again, via YouTube phenomena like the adorable Uke Kid and virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, who both perform interpretations of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — originally by George Harrison, himself a professed uke-aholic.

The history of the ukulele is choppy. It has passed through waves of cultural significance and kitsch popularity. Its origins are commonly misremembered — it first appeared in Portugal as a small Madeiran guitar. Brought by Portuguese cane workers to Hawaii in the 19th century, it was given its new name of “ukulele,” which translates to “jumping flea.” King Kalakaua, a major proponent of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, fell for the instrument and incorporated it into performances at royal gatherings.

The ukulele floated from Honolulu to the Bay for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, where “the Hawaiian Pavilion” launched the first continental fad for Hawaiian songs and the uke. The Bay Area soon became an international gateway for the ukulele.

Today’s vibrant ukulele scene continues this legacy. The current crop of Bay-based ukulele players have little connection to the instrument’s Hawaiian history and utilize the uke for a wide spectrum of musical genres: the Corner Laughers play bouncy indie power pop; Tippy Canoe incorporates early country music, ’30s jazz and ’60s pop; Ash Reiter accents her jazz-infused indie folk with the ukulele; Uni and Her Ukelele takes ideas from burlesque dancers, comedians, light rock and soul; and in a haphazard YouTube video made by Sandy Kim, ubiquitous garage rocker Ty Segall plays a ditty on the uke.

“As soon as I picked up the uke, I started writing a song,” explains vocalist-ukester Emily Ritz of HoneyComb. “Its size was perfect, and I liked the challenge of making a uke sound dirty, dark, and dangerous.” Influenced by everyone from Billie Holiday to Joanna Newsom, Ritz turns the ukulele into something mysterious and haunting.

Some Bay Area ukesters emerge from the kitsch appeal that the goofy-ginger TV personality Arthur Godfrey left in his wake. Godfrey learned to play the ukulele from a Hawaiian shipmate while he was in the Navy, and when he went on television to promote the new plastic ukuleles, more than 9 million ukuleles were sold, in the second great-wave of ukulele popularity.

Camp taste has an allure, and Uni and Her Ukelele — deliberately spelled the British way, according to Uni, because “I just like how the ‘e’ and ‘l’ loop together in cursive” — mine that appeal by including mermaids, rainbows, and unicorns as subject matter. “While I was learning the basic chords on the ukulele, I found it easier to write more quirky songs,” Uni explains via e-mail from New Zealand. “Fun is a good place to start.”

Post Godfrey, the ukulele’s second wave ended with the annoying falsetto voice of Tiny Tim. Baby boomers threw their plastic strummers into their closets, associating the instrument with all things cheesy. Many guitar distributors ceased making ukuleles during the 1990s, but a third resurgence began in the early aughts, due in part to two significant events: Paul McCartney played the instrument at a tribute concert after George Harrison’s passing, and Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” medley became familiar through countless radio-plays, movies, commercials, and weddings. Now even the iPhone has an application that mimics and teaches ukulele chords.

Introductions to the ukulele are often random rather than contrived, much like the ebb-and-flow history of the instrument. Ash Reiter, who fronts a band of the same name, got a uke as a gift from a friend in high school. She later acquired her own, only to have it stolen at a performance with fellow ukesters. She stopped playing, but eventually inherited another one from her grandfather. “It’s one that he got while he was stationed in Hawaii for a while,” Reiter says. “It’s just one of the few things that we shared, and I remember he used to sing a lot of dirty songs that he learned in the war on it, like ‘One-Eyed Dick.’ Then when he was in the nursing home, I would play the ukulele for him.”

Like all good things, the ukulele comes in different shapes and sizes: there are traditional pear-shaped ukes; pineapple-shaped ukuleles that produce a mellower sound; DIY ukuleles made from cigar boxes and plastic lollipop knobs. Godfrey designed the first baritone ukulele, and then there is the “banjulele” popularized by Englishmen George Formby during the ’30s and ’40s. Formby is also an inspiration for Karla Kane, vocalist and ukulele-player of the Corner Laughers, who describes its sound as “twangy” and explains that she found her 1930s banjulele at an antiques fair in San Rafael.

Berkeley-based ukulele artisan Peter Hurney specially designed Tippy Canoe, a.k.a. Michele Kappel-Stone, a ukulele. “At the time I was playing a ukulele that was all black, and he came up to me and said, ‘You need an ukulele that matches your personality,'<0x2009>” explains Kappel-Stone. The two collaborated and chose imagery from a 1913 Bauhaus poster, which circles the ukulele’s sound hole.

Musically, each of these Bay Area musicians advance the uke in different ways. “We put the ukulele on almost every track on the new album,” explains Kane of the Corner Laughers. “But a lot of people don’t even recognize it because we put a lot of cool effects on it. I have an electric ukulele, so I put it through an amplifier, and a space-echo box, and distortion.”

Uni and her Ukelele write songs on the uke, whereas Ash Reiter uses the ukulele only occasionally, often as an accent or a layer within the song. Outside the Bay Area, the instrument has been used by everyone from Kate Bush to Elvis Costello to tUnE-yArDs in recent years. As Tippy Canoe says, “I love that it is such a universal instrument. Anyone can pick it up and play it.” In the Bay Area, and beyond, an increasing number of bands are doing exactly that.


With Annie Bacon and her Oshen, the Spindles

Wed/20, 9 p.m., $7

Elbo Room

647 Valencia St., SF


With Photons

Sat/23, 7:30, $7

The Make-Out Room

3225 22nd Street


Feb. 17, 8 p.m., $10

Rickshaw Stop

155 Fell St., SF


With Anna Ash

March 4, 9:30 p.m. $6

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk St., SF