Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Ukulele is Hawai'ian

I have been trying to think about how to phrase something that comes as a bit of a concern to me. It has to do with the current ukulele craze.  I am not qualified to speak to it, really, but it is something I have noticed...

You see, I know a whole lot of uke players.  I also have seen many others in concert or on Youtube.  I read the online catalogues from ukulele companies, too.  What I have noticed (and it isn't too hard to notice) is that the vast majority of images of ukulele players are white and millennial.  Yes, there are also some Gen Xers thrown in (like me, usually also white).  Also (of course) professionals like Jake Shimabukuro and the late Israel Kamakawiwoʻole aren't exactly invisible.  However, this demographic and marketing trend is an interesting one that I think we should be aware of, particularly because the uke is at the same time closely identified with an ethnic minority and specific region.

One reason we should be aware of this is that it is the responsible thing for a uke player to do.  One should know the history of the instrument.  It may even be worthwhile to learn an actual Hawai'ian folk tune rather than the simple pop songs that most of us learn.  The uke grew out of an even smaller instrument brought from Portugal and it was developed for a specific context for the use of native Hawai'ians. This is why it sounds the way it sounds and is played the way it is played.  It had to augment and deepen the traditional music of the islands.  Knowing the instrument's (non-ironic non-slacker) roots gives depth to our own playing.

Another reason is that with this current popularity, we should worry that the original context will be either a) lost to most of us or b) caricatured.  I have direct experience of the first of these possibilities.  More than once after I have played the uke in church, a visitor will come up and talk to me about it.  It is surprising how frequently they say they didn't know its history.  Some folks think it is British (George Formby).  Others are under the impression it is basically a toy--a mini-guitar--used to teach school children or maybe a prop for hipsters.  This isn't necessarily their fault, it just reflects what they see.

The issue of caricature can be see on labeling for cheaper ukes from time to time.  There is a fine line that people who sell these instruments have to walk between promotion of the "sun, sand, and good times' image of Hawai'i and the ukulele on one hand and stereotyping of the "Atlanta Braves mascot" variety on the other.  Most do a good job, but that risk is still there.

Also, there is that slacker vibe that goes along with the ukulele lifestyle. There are a wide variety of books geared toward playing anything from Heavy Metal to Classical, to Irish Folk music and the implication is that it will be somehow easier and, well...funnier that way.  I think it is great that ukuleles and ukeists don't take themselves too seriously.  At the same time, it is worth noting that for some folks there is a seriousness to the endeavor.  In the recent documentary "Life On Four Strings", one of the current owners of Kamaka Ukuleles says "We don't make toys, we make musical instruments" in a series of comments directed at, well, people not too different from me.

The divorce of an instrument from it's roots is, I believe, something worth thinking about.  One of the most prominent African-American instruments in history is the banjo.  Today--thanks to the complicated racial politics of our country--most people are completely unaware of this.  The unfortunate popularity of the minstrel shows, of course, had a lot to do with the change in identity.  Now it is most prominently used in bluegrass as well as in various forms of British/Celtic rock and folk.  If you were to ask people today who the greatest living banjo player is, those in the know might say Bela Fleck or Noam Pikelney.  Someone else might (incorrectly) assume Steve Martin.  Everyone else would lift up "that guy from Mumford and Sons".

This is changing.  Bands like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and its various alumni (including Dom Flemons) are doing a great job of bringing the African roots of the banjo back into our consciousness. The situations, of course, are very different.   However, the question the ukulele community must keep somewhere in the back of its mind has to do with preventing the uke from being loved right out of its original home. 

The story needs to remain intact.  What are you doing to keep it going?

Of course, it takes work to be able to play like this:

Here (below) is David Wax Museum (one of my favorite bands) opening for the Carolina Chocolate Drops and borrowing Dom Flemons.   Here he isn't playing the banjo, but the bones.  David Wax is playing the uke, though, which is cool.

And now Dom Flemons...

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