The grand old uke
"The ukulele craze has swept the country," says Hester Goodman, a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, which last week played to 6,000 enthusiastic fans at the Royal Albert Hall as part of this season's Proms. Goodman, who has played with the group for 20 years, is still flushed with success. "It was a real moment for all of us. It was an accolade to be asked to play," she says. The high point of the show arrived when 1,000 ukulele players in the audience joined in on an abridged version of Beethoven's Ode to Joy.
"Afterwards, I saw a clip of Ode to Joy on YouTube and I must admit I had a tear in my eye," says Goodman. It was a ukulele tipping point. For so long an underrated instrument - members of the orchestra sometimes refer to it as the "bonsai guitar" - the ukulele is having its moment in the sun. Last year, the New York college student Julia Nunes became a YouTube phenomenon when she posted videos of herself performing songs by The Beatles and Ben Folds on the ukulele. Will I Am of the Black Eyed Peas and Jermaine Clement from the comedy duo Flight of the Conchords have both announced that they are keen uke players (Clement is a member of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra). The Beatle George Harrison was so enamoured of the instrument that he often gave it as a gift, while the billionaire financier and Berkshire Hathaway chairman Warren Buffett recently declared himself a ukulele aficionado. An increasing number of indie bands are using the instrument, including Noah and the Whale, which enjoyed a worldwide ukulele-based hit with Five Years Time. And there is now a website, www.ukulelehunt.com, that explains chords and strumming techniques to the ukulele's growing horde of devotees.
So, why all the sudden interest? "Whenever I pick it up and start playing, people smile," says Goodman. "It's a friendly instrument. It's not threatening. It's easy to play, so it's empowering. It makes people feel special." The simplicity of the instrument has helped the ukulele take off in schools, where it has challenged the recorder as a starter musical instrument. "It's small and its strings are soft, so it is great for little fingers," says Keiron Phelan of London's specialist ukulele store The Duke of Uke. "It makes a great first instrument and, unlike the recorder, you can sing along to it, too."
"There is no great repertoire for the ukulele," adds Goodman, "so you can play modern songs as well as classical." It's not just players who love the ukulele. Audiences are listening to the instrument with fresh ears. The pop musician Dent May released an album titled The Good Feeling Music of Dent May and His Magnificent Ukulele this year. He says that picking up the ukulele has won him new fans.
"My audience really dig it," he says. "It's a joyful instrument. "It can be very jaunty, but it can be sad too. It can evoke more than just one emotion," says Beth Jeans Houghton, who plays ukulele on the Hot Toast Volume One EP, which is out next month. "It can be very, very poignant," agrees Goodman. "You can strip down the pomp and production and get to the heart of a song. I don't think of it as a comic instrument at all."
It was on a camping trip with my family this summer that I, too, fell under the spell of the ukulele. Impressed by the instrument's ability to get some rather cynical people to join in a campfire singsong, I resolved to become a player. My first stop was The Duke of Uke. Phelan recommended that I spend around £50 to £60 (Dh300-Dh360) for a beginner's instrument. While there are cheaper models on the market, spending a little more would help me avoid buying an instrument that might easily go out of tune.
While ukuleles come in different sizes, Phelan suggested a soprano (the classic size) and pointed me in the direction of reliable makes such as Tanglewood, Makai and Stag. After twanging a few, I settled on a Tanglewood TU1 soprano for just under £50. And that, he said, is all I needed to know. "You don't need lessons," said Phelan. "Get some chords off the internet and play what you like. You can do it sitting in front of the TV."
I rushed home and had a little strum, pleased that I now had at least one thing in common with Buffett (it would be something to talk about should we ever meet). But after an hour or so, I realised that the financial genius Buffett was wrong about one thing. He said playing the ukulele wouldn't impress girls. Now my wife wants to take up the ukulele, too.