It all started during Nellie McKay’s recent concert at Lakeside’s Hoover Auditorium, when she flounced over to the microphone and picked up a ukulele to perform her next Doris Day number. As she strummed and sang, I suddenly decided that I wanted to learn to play the ukulele!
I’ve liked the ukulele for a long time. I enjoyed hearing it during a luau we attended in Hawaii. I’ve also perked up when I’ve seen one in movies and on television, like when Marilyn Monroe played one in “Some Like It Hot,” when Doris Day and Arthur Godfrey sang with one in “The Glass Bottom Boat,” and when Lucille Ball appeared with one on her shows. I didn’t know much about this charming instrument, but that’s changing!
Last Friday, I visited the friendly girls at the Westerville location of Colonial Music and selected a pretty Mitchell 12-fret concert ukulele. Made of spruce and rosewood, my ukulele also has an inlay pattern of mother-of-pearl and a rosette and purfling made of abalone.
To begin my ukulele education, I checked out several resources from the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s collection. Teresa Bright’s “Beginning Ukulele” DVD is the perfect way to learn how to play the ukulele. As I strum my way through a repetitive series of C, F, and G chords, Teresa encourages me with plenty of “maika`i”’s (that’s Hawaiian for “good”). Not only can I play Hawaiian “vamps” now; I can also accompany Teresa – very slowly – in her renditions of “Ho’olauna Aloha,” “Lehua Makanoe” and “He Aloha No O Honolulu.” I’m working my way up to Jumpin’ Jim Beloff’s ukulele music books. By Christmas, I hope I’ll be ready to play “Mele Kalikimaka” and his chord solo of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” For now, his chord chart is indispensable!
I’m also discovering interesting trivia about the ukulele, thanks to Mr. Beloff’s The Ukulule: A Visual History. Loaded with colorful ephemera and photographs, the book describes the ukulele’s history; its rise in popularity; its influence on Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood and advertising; great Hawaiian and mainland players; and ukulele manufacturers. Did you know that the ukulele is the descendant of a Portuguese musical instrument called a braguinha, popular on the island of Madeira? The ukulele is thought to have arrived in Hawaii in 1879 on a ship called the Ravenscrag. And how did the ukulele get its name? According to Mr. Beloff, it may have been to honor Edward Purvis, a talented musician who played the braguinha. Because he was small, he was nicknamed “Ukulele,” which means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian. Another theory suggests that Hawaiian Queen Lili’uokalani preferred to translate the Hawaiian words “uku” (“the gift”) and “lele” (“to come”), referring to the way the instrument had come to Hawaii from Portugal. There are two different pronunciations for “ukulele” – the Hawaiians say “oo-koo-le-le,” while mainlanders prefer “you-koo-le-le.” And do you know about the ukelin? Patented in 1926 and made until 1963, it’s a cross between a violin and a ukulele, held in the lap and played by plucking zither-like strings with one hand while bowing a different set of strings with the other. See? That book is filled with fun facts!
To add an archival dimension to my new pursuit, I found three pieces of ukulele sheet music in the Ohio Historical Society’s Archives/Library collection. First was a 1935 arrangement of “Ave Maria” with ukulele chords and a special Hawaiian guitar chorus. Next was The Cowboy Sings: Songs of the Ranch and Range: Traditional Songs of the Western Frontier, a 1932 collection of songs arranged for singing with ukulele accompaniments, such as “The Cowboy’s Lament” (which has the same melody as one of the songs I play on my harp, “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms,”) “Sweet Betsy from Pike,” “Cowboy at Church” and “Rhythm of the Chuck Wagon Wheels.” Finally, “My Ohio Home,” a 1927 ukulele-accompanied ballad with lyrics by Gus Kahn and music by Walter Donaldson, includes an ad for the sheet music for “I Tore Up Your Picture When You Said Good-Bye (But I’ve Put It Together Again),” a selection described by the advertiser as “A Sure-Fire Harmony Ballad That The ‘Gang’ Will Enjoy Singing.”
I’m also happy to be adding a local ukulele concert to my autumn calendar. The Ukulele Cowboy Society will be performing on Sunday, November 13 at 2:00 p.m. at the Upper Arlington Public Library’s main branch. This jazz and swing-style duo will perform popular standards from artists like Judy Garland, Billie Holliday, Peggy Lee, Cole Porter and Lena Horne.
Mahalo (thank you) to Colonial Music, Teresa Bright, Jumpin’ Jim Beloff, the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the Ohio Historical Society, and the Upper Arlington Public Library for helping me learn to play the ukulele!