Ukulele: The ‘child’s toy’ that conquered the musical world

Ireland’s annual ukulele festival demonstrates the instrument’s phenomenal appeal

Virtuoso ukulele players Joel Eckhaus and Tim Findlen along with Tony Boland, the founder of the Ukulele Hooley By the Sea, dropped into The Irish Times in advance of this weekend’s annual festival. Video: Ronan McGreevy

 

The rise and fall and rise again of the ukulele tells us as much about the times we live in as it does about the humble instrument itself.

Once derided as a child’s toy and the instrument of choice of gap-toothed song-and-dance men in scruffy British seaside resorts or novelty performers like Tiny Tim, the ukulele all but vanished from the public consciousness.

In the last decade though, the ukulele has undergone an extraordinary renaissance. Sales of the instrument have trebled in the United States from 500,000 in 2009 to 1.4 million last year reflecting a worldwide phenomenon.

Sales of ukuleles in Britain have surpassed 250,000 a year thanks to the “Mumford effect” - Mumford & Sons being one of the mainstream acts that has embraced a once much-maligned instrument.

Ireland is no different. “We can’t keep the damn things in stock,” said Bill Murray, the manager of Walton’s, Dublin’s largest music store. “We sell thousands. We get school orders all the time. Most schools will order between five and 50.”

Ukuleles are cheap, but even the cheap ones sound good. The ukulele forgives mediocre players. They are an easy instrument to learn though a challenging one to perfect. Unlike recorders or tin whistles, they are chromatic instruments which means musicians can play all the notes and all the scales. They have supplanted the recorder in schools as the first instrument most children learn to play.

Adults testify to their therapeutic value and to their usefulness as a mindfulness tool in the frenetic world we live in. The ukulele is renowned for its happy sound.

They have become a tool of sociability with orchestras, ukulele nights and Whatsapp groups. The weekly ‘Ukulele Tuesday’ in the Stag’s Head, Dublin, attracts dozens of players of varying ability who are all asked to learn a songbook published online. The ukulele has become the most democratic of musical instruments.

Former RTÉ producer Tony Boland had been around music for much of his professional life but never learned to play an instrument until he heard somebody play the ukulele on the radio. That was in 2008.

“I couldn’t find a shop in Ireland that sold one and I couldn’t find anybody who might teach me,” he said.

He bought an instrument online, an old mahogany Martin from 1919 with a few dints and scratches. It played beautifully even if he, by his own admission, does not play beautifully.

An internet search revealed about a half dozen other people in Ireland who played the ukulele.

Recession proof

Undaunted he set up the first ukulele festival in Temple Bar in 2009, just as sales were about to take off despite the collapse of the Celtic Tiger. It proved to be a recession-proof instrument.

“I know one music shop who told me that what saved them from having to close was their sales of ukuleles,” he said.

The eighth annual ukulele festival, known as the Ukulele Hooley By The Sea takes place on Saturday and Sunday in Dun Laoghaire. The highlight will be an open air concert on Sunday afternoon in the People’s Park followed by the Big Ukulele Jam.

Mr Boland says he is expecting 3,000 people for the jam; that’s performers not spectators.

“I have met a whole community of people. The only thing a lot of us have in common is the love of the ukulele,” he said. “I think it has an absolutely magical sound.”

Some of the best exponents of the instrument will also be playing at the festival.

Joel Eckhaus, who is based in Maine, is both a ukulele player and an instrument builder. The cheap ones he builds out of cigar boxes; the expensive ones out of mahogany based on a guitar design by Antonio Stradivari.

He casually lets slip that he made an instrument for Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder and “he bought one and gave it to Bruce Springsteen”.

Mr Vedder’s 2011 album Ukulele Songs, did much to popularise the instrument with rock fans.

Versatile instrument

Mr Eckhaus started off playing American folk music. Around 1980 he discovered the recordings of the great American ukulele player Roy Smeck. He could not find anybody else to give him lessons so he sought Smeck out. “ I found possibly the best teacher I could ever ask for,” he said.

“In the beginning people would laugh when I told them I played the ukulele because nobody ever heard of it. Gradually more and more people started becoming impressed with it.”

Mr Eckhaus identifies its versatility as an instrument as its chief attraction. “You can pick up a ukulele and learn three chords and play a song in 10 minutes or spend a lifetime playing ukulele and never stop learning.”

His playing partner for the weekend is Tim Findlen (35) also from Maine, but now living in Nashville, Tennessee.

He knew nothing about the ukulele until an old girlfriend gave him one the same week that he heard his first recording of the instrument.

“I’m particularly interested in pre-World War II music. There is a certain nostalgic glance when you can look back on the great golden age of the ukulele players and the mystique of vaudeville,” he says.

“The skies the limit,” he jokes. “I’m playing for 10 years and I’m still really bad at it. There is a lifetime of learning in this instrument.”

For more information on this weekend’s festival see http://ukulelehooley.com/