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Uke Light Up My Life

Ukuleles ... your thoughts?
Posted 11:51am on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

And the revolution ... it won't make you cool! It won't be played by a rock star in a stadium, to an audience of thousands on an electric guitar ... because it will be played by a drag queen. At the Undermain Theatre. On a ukulele. To an audience of 75. -- Taylor Mac, with a hat-tip to Gil Scott-Heron


Plinka, plinka, plinka.

This is the sound of me -- after a decadelong unconsummated crush on a ukulele -- finally playing a C chord. In tune.

A grin begins to crawl across my face, until the corners of my mouth are nearly bursting through my temples.

It's not that I'm enamored of the two chords I can now (sort of) play on the ukulele. The same grin takes my face hostage anytime I hear the absurdly happy sound come plunking out of the absurdly tiny instrument.

I am charmed, disarmed and completely punch-drunk in love.

"It plays music -- small music, with its four runty, little strings. It is happy, it is sweet, it is sad. It is the underachiever who reaches for the stars," as the 2003 documentary Rock That Uke so finely articulated. "We are annoyed by its deluded aspirations, and yet we root for it."

No, it's not as cool as an electric guitar howling through an arena roof. Carry a guitar onto an elevator, and people will nod as if you've ridden up on a Harley. Tuck a ukulele under your arm, and people will greet you with that bemused sideways grin that seems to say: "Off to a Tiny Tim convention, are ya?"

Well, stand back, all ye who mock. The ukulele may be miniature, but its power is mighty.

After years of plunking happily away on the fringes, it's now falling into the arms of everyone from Taylor Swift, Jason Mraz and American Idol contestants to local bands like Matthew and the Arrogant Sea. You can hear it at a high-school classroom in Coppell and in living rooms across Fort Worth. And in late April, Dallas will play host to the first-ever Lone Star Uke Fest.

With its sweet, old-fashioned sound and growing cult of followers, the ukulele is finally having its moment.

"There's nothing better than strumming on a ukulele. It really has the sound and the spirit of joy. Everybody needs one." -- Jason Castro of Rowlett, the dreadlocked fourth-place finalist from American Idol's seventh season.

"I actually bring that ukulele with me everywhere. I bring it into work.... On a slow day, I'll be sitting at the front desk looking like I'm working but playing the ukulele." -- Natalie Grande, a 24-year-old massage therapist in Fort Worth and Burleson.

"I do think the ukulele makes the world a better place." -- Taylor Mac, a playwright who performs in drag and sequined face, and accompanies himself on the uke.

And if you don't believe him, consider the Ukuleles for Peace project, which aims to bring Israeli and Palestinian children together through playing the ukulele. Plinking for peace?

There goes that grin again.

Uke-splosion

When I was in high school, most kids wouldn't dare walk the halls with a "dorky" instrument like the ukulele. It would be social suicide.

Flash-forward a couple decades to a choir room at Coppell High School, and you'll see just how much the uke has shaken off its uncool stank.

On Wednesday afternoons, about 15 students show up for a meeting of sophomore Miles Pitman's club. (The club is made up of choir and band kids, but Miles, a former basketball player, says some of his wrestler buddies are also set to join.) Ukuleles in hand, the kids are ready for Miles to teach them the chords for their next song. They vote on which T-shirts to order for their club and how to make sure their group photo gets in the yearbook.

The meeting is part structured, part blissed-out anarchy, the kids bursting with unbridled enthusiasm for the new instrument in their lives. Says member Madison Ford: "If the smiley face played an instrument, it would be the ukulele." (If the uke ever gets its own slogan, Madison should get the copyright.)

You don't have to trek to Coppell to learn and play, though. Fort Worth has a meet-up group called the Coffee House Ukulele Gang (CHUG). Although their coffeehouse of choice shut down, they still meet twice a month at a member's house and play old-timey tunes ( Ain't She Sweet, You Are My Sunshine and Flaming Ukulele in the Sky). There's also the Dallas Ukulele Headquarters (DUH), which, at 200 members, is the largest uke group on Meetup.com, according to DUH president Mark Levine.

While I was buying my starter uke at Guitar Center in Plano, a salesman told me that this past December, his store sold about 100 ukuleles.

The 19th-century Hawaiian instrument is definitely surfing a new wave. (Oh, and if you were wondering, the word "ukulele" is Hawaiian, a rough translation of "jumping fleas" -- what a player's fingers look like as they dance across the fret board.) If you picture "uke popularity" on a fever chart throughout the years, you'd see one wild-looking graph. Among many benchmarks: a huge spike in the 1950s when Arthur Godfrey popularized it, and a cavernous dip sometime after Tiny Tim's 1968 hit Tiptoe Through the Tulips, which people either reviled or embraced as a piece of vaudeville-style entertainment. After that, the fever line stayed low and level for decades .

Then, in the late '90s, Hollywood discovered a ukulele song by Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (Iz for short) -- the heartbreakingly beautiful medley of Somewhere Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. It was tailor-made for a poignant backdrop for movies, commercials and TV shows -- most notably, the 2002 episode of ER where Dr. Mark Green dies.

Then came MySpace, Facebook and, in 2005, YouTube -- and it was game on. The uke scene exploded into the solar system. People who had thought they were plinking alone into a chasm were suddenly discovering other like-minded souls. Their videos spread among the ukulele community, and some even went viral around the globe. A simple ukulele search on YouTube will pop up 80,000-plus videos, featuring everyone from amateurs to the fantastically fun Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain to virtuosos like Jake Shimabukuro, who commits magic on George Harrison's While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

Small instrument, big appeal

As recently as last week, Alex Lambert of North Richland Hills appeared on American Idol accompanying himself on uke, playing Jason Mraz's I'm Yours. He made it to the top 24. But he's not the first North Texan Idol to make a splash with a uke. Before him, there was Castro, whose ukulele debut was a showstopper. He performed Iz's Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World medley.

What's kind of amazing is that when he decided to play that song, Castro had never played the ukulele before. So he learned it in a week. "I figured, it's four strings -- it's gotta be a little easier than the guitar," said Castro, who was in Dallas on Wednesday, performing at The Loft. Since then, Castro has been writing songs on the ukulele. (His full-length album is due this spring, but a uke tune does appear on If I Were You, from his The Love Uncompromised EP).

"The ukulele's just awesome," Castro says. "You can play the saddest song, and it sounds happy."

The uke's mystique comes from its sound, for sure, but there's also the size and shape, says Bill Robertson, who made an extraordinary little documentary in 2003 called Rock That Uke. He thinks some of the instrument's charm is linked with the physical act of holding it.

"It's about the size of a human infant," he says. "And when you hold it to play, you hold it up close and you're cradling it to your heart ... to be corny about it. It is this small thing that you're protecting, and also giving you a sense of protective purpose in the world."

But above all, there's that singular sound. Sweet, innocent, ridiculously happy. Even when it comes in stark contrast to the player -- like Taylor Mac, who performed at Dallas' Undermain Theatre earlier this month. "We're reminded of a time when we were so young that nothing is our fault," he says. "And that makes us happy."

Robertson, my go-to ukulele philosophizer, also points out that the ukulele's four strings have a high end but no low end. "All that really means ... that's the 'plink' quality," he says. "You're strumming it, all the strings are in the upper range, and it doesn't have that bass sort of support that a guitar has, that robust sound. Just the high sound, which gives it a very childlike quality that conveys a certain innocence."

Three other reasons for its allure: It's cheap, portable and accessible. A starter soprano uke costs $30 or $40. Though like any instrument, the fancier woods and inlays can produce a custom ukulele in the thousands of dollars.

As for learning to play, uke fanatics insist it's a piece of cake. "I can teach anyone to play the ukulele in about 15 minutes," says Levine of the Dallas Ukulele Headquarters. "We do about a 15-minute session at the beginning of each class."

All these things imbue the ukulele with a quality that you don't find in other musical instruments, Mac says.

"It's partly because of the humanity of the instrument," he says. "Pretty much anyone can pick up a ukulele, and you can learn how to play three chords in about an hour, and play a song. So it brings joy, because people see the possibility that 'If you can do it, I can do it, too.'"

Back at Coppell High, the teenagers are working their way through songs like The Lion Sleeps Tonight, and bursting with unbridled enthusiasm for their new instrument.

When I ask the group if the ukes have the power to change the world, I'm answered with a cacophony of infectious, jokey patter:

"Yeah!"

"If more people played the ukulele, we would have less wars."

"Why don't we just drop some ukuleles on Cuba?"

"Bubble-Wrapped, of course."

"With little parachutes!"

"They're happy bombs!"

I see them now, exploding all over the map. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

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