I’ve been on a little bit of a ukulele music kick lately. I was kicking around the web back in January, looking for material for the Tiki culture portion of Tiki Month and ran across an nice article in The Atlantic entitled The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Ukulele. It is an excellent little history of the ukulele in American pop culture, and well worth a read. The word “Tiki” doesn’t actually appear in the article, and mentioning that is a good way to note that while they are often connected, the ukulele is not at all exclusively a Tiki music instrument (especially of late). I’ll just focus on the fact that the arc of the ukulele’s popularity closely matches that of Tiki culture in general, and for much the same reasons.
In broad strokes, the ukulele (in its Hawaiian-perfected form) first came to mainstream attention in the early 20th Century, before the invention of Tiki. With its exotic origins and ease of play, the ukulele was a fun and easy way to transport yourself through imagination to exotic lands, just like the Tiki culture which followed and adopted the uke. By the 1950’s, the instrument was huge, reaching a peak of popularity, with nearly one and three-quarter million ukulele players in the US alone. If your image of the ukulele is of ridiculous nerd Tiny Tim, “tiptoeing through the tulips”, remember that Elvis’s ukulele soundtrack from Blue Hawaii was number one for five months.
But with the 60’s, the culture started to move on. The Beatles, with their big, sexy, throbbing guitars made the little ukulele seem childish. Also, I imagine that the burgeoning of the recorded music industry hurt the ukulele too. One of its chief draws is how easy it is to learn and to play this little guy. As technology made it less and less important for people to be able to make their own music, instruments whose leading draw was their ease of play lost a lot of their market edge. Besides, if you liked a piece of ukulele music, there was the mortal risk that your Dad might whip his out and try to play it!
Among the frustrations I’ve experienced recently is the discovery that The Rock—The Freakin’ Rock!—has a better voice than I do….
Eventually, like other aspects of Tiki culture, the ukulele was virtually forgotten by pop culture. This paved the way for its revival, as its cultural baggage lost its potency. The things that made it popular to begin with remain true, of course. It is easy to play. It is versatile. It is just intrinsically fun. Again, just like other elements of Tiki culture, the ukulele’s revival comes in a form more integrated with mainstream culture. The web is rife with ukulele covers of distinctly non-tropical music. And the thing is, they work. Sometime when you are definitely not at work, listen to this semi-perfect cover of Cee Lo Green’s most famous hit. (No really, it is not the radio version!)
Of course, as Tiki culture in its purer forms makes its boutique, and hopefully sustainable comeback, the ukulele is still a staple for musicians such as Don Tiki.
Search around for ukulele music. You’ll like it. And if you have the least musical inclination, whether you want a first instrument or you are a musician who’d be interested in an easy extra to pick up, consider a ukulele. You can get a Starter Ukulele, with extra strings, case, and introductory instruction book from Amazon for $32.50. And that’s a Prime Eligible price. I bought one shortly before posting this.
And yes, I am aware I just reduced the chance that anyone who reads this will risk visiting my home in the future….