The Highest Echelon of Modern-Day Ukulele Heroes
To many serious musicians, the ukulele sure has come a long way from being an instrument that is almost an afterthought. Ask anybody who’s taken up an interest in music – there wasn’t much interest in the ukulele at all for a long time, due to its association with being an antiquated and limited sonic palette. It was a relic of the war. Or a folk instrument that has no place in pop music.
It seemed as though the ukulele was destined for the margins of music, until its remarkable resurgence in popularity.Nowadays, the ukulele is making a triumphant re-entry to popular music and popular culture – pop music stars such as Jack Johnson and the country group Mumford and Sons have made use of this instrument again. Furthermore, sales have never been higher – even cafes solely dedicated to ukulele players have cropped up out of nowhere.
Everyone and his mother are now learning to play the instrument, which is now a common fixture in popular music.
So, where did all this begin? Let’s trace the ukulele’s resurgence to its heroes in modern history, to whom we pay homage to in the following sections – this will also serve as a guide of sorts for the aspiring ukulele player.
1. Tiny Tim
Perhaps no other entertainer has done more to keep the ukulele in the public spotlight than Herbert “Tiny Tim” Khaury. The gangly falsetto scored one of his biggest hits, a rendition of Joel Burke and Al Dublin’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”, and the rest is history. This rendition soared through the charts and is one of the most well-known ukulele tunes in modern pop music – which came out in 1968. Tiny Tim also wowed audiences with his encyclopedic knowledge of obscure show tunes accompanying himself on ukulele, being one of its foremost ambassadors until his untimely passing in 1996 – on stage, playing the ukulele.
2. Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
The gentle giant with a golden voice known as “Bruddah Iz” can truly be said to have almost single-handedly introduce the ukulele to the world with his medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”. After all, it was this same song that was featured on TV, film, radio, and commercials. Not surprisingly, his greatest contribution was to put Hawaii’s tradition of folk music on the world stage – he is rightfully revered for doing so.
3. Jake Shimabukuro
To make an analogy using professional wrestling, if Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was the Hulk Hogan of the ukulele (in terms of introducing it to the mainstream), then Jake Shimabukuro is Ric Flair (in terms of technical ability). His rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” on ukulele, which became viral on YouTube, was a truly remarkable testament of what the ukulele’s sonic boundaries can achieve – his body of work attests to the virtuosity that can be achieved with this little instrument. His influence can be attributed to the ukulele as Jimi Hendrix’s influence on the guitar was – to go where no other musician has gone before in terms of boundaries. He has since designed a line of ukuleles bearing his signature – the Kamaka ukulele… this uku gets top reviews! If it’s good enough for Jake Shimabukuro….
4. Eddie Vedder
You may know him better as the frontman for multi-awarded rock group Pearl Jam, but Eddie Vedder has also played a part in popularizing the instrument – even within the confines of Pearl Jam itself. It started off with one of his first recorded songs on ukulele, entitled “Soon Forget”, on their 2000 album Binaural. This was followed by an essential album for all ukulele enthusiasts, aptly entitled “Ukulele Songs”, in 2011.