By­ways

Evergreen - - Contents - Paul Wil­liams

Ibought my­self a ukulele re­cently, an im­pulse buy made af­ter reading a lo­cal news­pa­per ar­ti­cle on the ukulele craze which is cur­rently sweep­ing the coun­try.

It seems that the in­stru­ment, which is most syn­ony­mous with Ge­orge Formby, is en­joy­ing a bit of a re­nais­sance and ukulele groups are spring­ing up all over the coun­try. In my lit­tle part of North York­shire there are two groups, with the old­est mem­ber be­ing in his 90s!

The in­crease in pop­u­lar­ity is thought to be down to the in­stru­ment’s size and ver­sa­til­ity. It is eas­ily trans­portable, light­weight and rel­a­tively sim­ple to learn, hav­ing just four ny­lon strings which are light on the fin­gers of “new­bies”.

Al­though widely re­garded as a Hawai­ian in­ven­tion, the roots of ukulele play­ing can be traced back to a small, tra­di­tional in­stru­ment called the “ma­chete de braga”, which orig­i­nated in the Madeira Is­lands of Por­tu­gal. This in­stru­ment was in­tro­duced to Hawaii by Por­tuguese im­mi­grants who had found work in the su­gar cane fields. The first ship Raven­scrag docked in Au­gust 1879 and the im­mi­grants cel­e­brated their safe pas­sage by play­ing tra­di­tional Por­tuguese folk songs on a lit­tle

four- stringed in­stru­ment known as a ma­chete. The tal­ented work­ers were an im­me­di­ate hit with the lo­cals and two weeks later the Hawai­ian Gazette re­ported:

A band of Por­tuguese mu­si­cians, re­cently ar­rived here, have been de­light­ing the peo­ple with nightly street con­certs. The mu­si­cians are true per­form­ers on their strange in­stru­ments, which are a cross be­tween a gui­tar and a banjo.

Prom­i­nent amongst th­ese “true per­form­ers” were three cab­i­net­mak­ers — Au­gusto Dias, Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espir­ito Santo — who re­sponded to the grow­ing in­ter­est in the new

in­stru­ment by open­ing their own shop in Honolulu in 1886.

Key to the pop­u­lar­ity of the ma­chete — re­named ukulele in the Hawai­ian lan­guage — was an en­dorse­ment by King David Kalakaua, an ac­com­plished mu­si­cian and com­poser who be­came an avid ukulele player.

There are sev­eral the­o­ries as to the ori­gin of the ukulele name — the most pop­u­lar be­ing that the term ukulele means “jump­ing flea” in Hawai­ian — thought to be a ref­er­ence to the way that the fin­gers “jump” around the strings when play­ing.

An­other leg­end has it that the King’s Cham­ber­lain, a small man named Ed­ward Purvis, was a rather en­thu­si­as­tic ukulele player, be­ing likened to a jump­ing flea by lo­cals

when per­form­ing. What­ever the ori­gin of the ukulele name there is no doubt­ing that the pop­u­lar­ity of the in­stru­ment was also helped by some cre­ative re­design­ing mak­ing it even eas­ier to play. Us­ing na­tive koa wood gave the in­stru­ment a slightly dif­fer­ent sound and the ukulele quickly be­came a sym­bol of “Aloha ’ Aina”— or love of the land.

The ukulele re­ally took off in the 20th cen­tury when it was in­tro­duced to Amer­ica. Dis­plays in San Fran­cisco by a group of Hawai­ian per­form­ers proved to be ex­tremely pop­u­lar and the in­stru­ment be­came a sen­sa­tion, even­tu­ally be­ing ab­sorbed into the jazz scene. Things took off again af­ter the Sec­ond World War when re­turn­ing Amer­i­can ser­vice­men, who had been fight­ing in the Pa­cific re­gion, brought back ukule­les as sou­venirs.

Fa­mous ex­po­nents of the ukulele have included the afore­men­tioned Ge­orge Formby, the Bea­tle Ge­orge Har­ri­son — who played a uke solo on “Free as a Bird”— and the co­me­dian Frank Skin­ner. Mem­ber­ship of the Ge­orge Formby So­ci­ety is at its high­est since the 1960s and in­creas­ing all the time. An­nual mem­ber­ship costs £ 20.00, which in­cludes free en­try to the quar­terly Black­pool con­ven­tions and free tu­ition in the Formby style of ukulele play­ing.

Caro­line Ste­wart, Chair­man of the so­ci­ety, said: “I started play­ing the uke about five years ago. I’d played many in­stru­ments be­fore — all self- taught and to a pretty ba­sic stan­dard — but the uke was dif­fer­ent and therein lies its ap­peal. Within just a few weeks, with help from on­line tu­to­ri­als and a mul­ti­tude of other in­for­ma­tion, I had reached

a rea­son­able stan­dard without the bleed­ing fin­ger­tips that usu­ally ac­com­pa­nies learn­ing to play the gui­tar!

“This fast- track progress is what en­tices so many peo­ple into church halls and pubs to sing and play week in, week out across the coun­try. In a world where ev­ery­thing is in­stant and time is per­ceived as be­ing in short sup­ply the ukulele plays a star­ring role.”

The long tra­di­tion of ukulele play­ing is be­ing kept alive to­day by the Ukulele Orches­tra of Great Bri­tain. Formed in 1985 as a “bit of fun” their first gig was an in­stant sell­out, and they have been per­form­ing ever since. By 1988 they had re­leased an LP, ap­peared at the WOMAD ( World of Mu­sic Arts and Dance) fes­ti­val and recorded a BBC Ra­dio ses­sion. The cur­rent line- up have been to­gether for more than 20 years and reg­u­larly play to packed houses all over the coun­try.

In an age where mu­sic is in­creas­ingly be­ing streamed and down­loaded it is com­fort­ing to know that, for the hum­ble ukulele, things are turn­ing out nice again!

PAUL WIL­LIAMS

A gath­er­ing of the Ge­orge Formby So­ci­ety, which has seen its high­est num­ber of mem­bers since the 1960s.

Ge­orge Formby is the most fa­mous ex­po­nent of the ukulele and the ukulele­banjo ( ban­jolele).

Caro­line Ste­wart ( left), Chair­man of the Ge­orge Formby So­ci­ety, says the quick progress you can make with the in­stru­ment is part of its ap­peal.

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