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!
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.