Monday, March 7, 2011

“Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback Of A Musical Underdog” (Tiny Goat Films)

As I was growing up in the continually expanding rock’n’roll eras of the 1950’s and ‘60’s, the ukulele had a pretty bad rap. For one thing, among rockers, the electric guitar was THE instrument of the moment, and the uke seemed hopelessly square. Second, it’s such a tiny thing and costs so little, who could take it seriously? Third, it conjured up images of slick-haired 1920’s frat boys in raccoon coats, as well as Arthur Godfrey, who may have been an entertaining t.v. host, but was no teenager’s idea of a hip musician. Then finally, along came Tiny Tim, and any residual interest in the ukulele was irrevocably destroyed. Or so it seemed at the time.

Forward to the end of the first decade of the 21st century. As I was expanding the number of areas of the globe covered in my “Musics of the World” course at SUNY Fredonia, and briefly discussing Hawaiian music in my “American Music” course as well, I noticed something unexpected. College students born around at the end of the 1980’s, primarily in the state of New York, professed to know who Bruddah Iz (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole) was, though he died while they were in grade school. It was generally the case that “Over the Rainbow” was the only song they knew by him (which some students seemed to associate more with him than “The Wizard of Oz”), but they were conversant with - and had considerably high regard for - a musician who played the ukulele. Before long, Iz was joined in the next batch of students’ eyes by the great Jake Shimabukuro. Once again, they might only know one song (“While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), but at least they were giving serious props to a bona-fide ukulele innovator.

In other words, the ukulele is no longer in limbo. It can actually be considered a cool instrument by college students in the eastern US in the year 2011. Oh, yes, I still hear my fellow faculty members make derisive comments about the instrument - until I counter with Jake S., at which time they grudgingly nod assent. But attitudes are hard to change in academia. Perhaps they should all watch this marvelously entertaining and educational film, “Mighty Uke”, as fine a no-apologies-needed paean to a once-reviled musical instrument as you could hope to see.

You see, the Canadian filmmakers who put this 79-minute documentary together don’t simply take the ukulele seriously. Well beyond that, they love this instrument with a passion. The film is part history, part love letter, part demonstration of its capabilities, part tribute to many of the uke’s finest exponents, and part testimonial to how darn much fun it is to make music simply, easily, and without complication, using an instrument that my know-it-all Baby Boomer generation dismissed as something of a joke.

Watching this film, it is abundantly clear that during its long period in musical limbo, the ukulele underwent a tremendous expansion of stylistic possibilities and playing techniques. You may learn by strumming, you may also effectively accompany singing by strumming. But this is also an instrument that is capable of great subtlety, delicacy, creativity, and even complexity when melodic lines are skillfully plucked on it. It is worth noting that many of the players who are seen playing the instrument on-camera are likewise surprised to find how much pleasure they get playing the instrument, and how surprised a few are to discover they can actually make money doing so. Clearly this is a new Golden Era for what seems so humble an instrument, as well providing non-musicians (from schoolchildren to senior citizen groups) an outlet to begin expressing themselves in musical ways. Teachers, Recreation Directors, and Music Therapists might find many of these scenes to be quite eye-opening, and send Music Education in whole new directions. I don’t even play the uke, and have no need to proselytize for the instrument, but I find I’ve been inspired to talk about it to people in positions to expose it further.

Along the way, we see many shapes, sizes, and styles of ukulele, a much greater variety of options than the mini-guitar shape we generally think of when the instrument is mentioned. We get a compact history of Hawaiian music in general and the uke in particular, tracing its roots to the Portuguese braguinha (also the forerunner of the uke’s Brazilian cousin, the cavaquinho, which I thought might get more attention here, though it has never really gone out of fashion in samba circles), examining its early days in the Hawaiian islands, its inroads into mainland/mainstream American pop-culture during the early 20th century, and yes, the dark days of Tiny Tim. We also get to see rare ukes in the collection of the Honolulu’s famed Bishop Museum. We meet the author/compiler of a series of ukulele instruction books and songbooks.

And we get to see performances and interviews, lots of them. We see masters on various levels of accomplishment, such as the aforementioned Jake Shimabukuro, centenarian Bill Tapia (who talks about his early career; he’s been playing since 1915!!), the late John King, a fellow named Jon Braman who unexpectedly blends the ukulele with hip-hop, singer-songwriter Uni, the Boulder Acoustic Society, and Canadian groundbreaker James Hill. But we also get to see talented amateurs in large ensembles, in senior bands, a group of Israeli youth of both Jewish and Arab descent, and a high-school uke orchestra from British Columbia which tours Hawaii annually. Clearly this is an instrument which transcends musical, geographical, ethnic, political, and seemingly any other kind of barrier. But the point continues to be stressed that you don’t necessarily need to play with a high level of skill to enjoy the instrument, just a high level of enthusiasm.

In addition to the full-length film, there are no less than 10 short films with supplementary material. (Outtakes? No matter, they’re worth seeing.) We get to look at some vintage Martin ukes and learn how they were made. (Yes, that’s THE Martin Guitar company. During the depression, people couldn’t always afford a fine Martin guitar, but they were much more likely to afford a $5 uke.) We see some unusual looking ukuleles-as-art-objects, as an introduction to a Japanese artist/craftsman who fashions “ukuleles of the future”, amplified and with flashing lights. There are short profiles of a number of interesting performers playing a wide variety of musical styles. We are treated to some excellent live footage of the great uke master John King, who passed away in 2009, after carving out a unique position in the world of Hawaiian-rooted contemporary ukulele composition. And to top it all off, James Hill gives us an introductory uke lesson.

In all, this is a thoroughly delightful film, which should have great appeal well beyond the already converted uke community, and which will open the eyes of music lovers of many stripes. I seriously doubt you’ll find this at Wal-Mart, so I’d suggest you check it out at

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