Monday, June 6, 2016

Ukuleles: A Small Instrument with a Big Sound

Brenna Corbit (l.), Technical Services Librarian and author of this article, and Jolene Flamm, Library Assistant, play their ukuleles behind The Yocum Library with the Schuylkill River flowing behind them.

by Brenna J. Corbit,Technical Services Librarian
Ukuleles may evoke palm trees and grass skirts swaying on a Hawaiian shore or Tiny Tim’s 1968 falsetto rendition of “Tip Toe through the Tulips.” But there is a whole lot more to this obscure little instrument that has seen a growing musical underground, including in Berks County.  A new magazine has been covering that resurgence.
Ukulele magazine, one of The Yocum Library’s newest periodicals, includes history, world pop culture, current music reviews and instrument lessons and advice. One article shows how this small instrument is playing a big role in changing the hearts and minds of Jewish and Arab children through their participation in a ukulele orchestra. An interview with ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, a Hawaiian native, discusses the musician’s sophistication with the instrument.
Speaking of Jake, another Yocum acquisition is Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings, a documentary of the musician’s life and talents.  His 2006 rendition of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has seen more than 14 million views on YouTube:
The ukulele craze originated as the machete, a small stringed instrument from the Portuguese island of Madeira.  Employment-seeking immigrants from that island took it with them to Hawaii in the late1800s.  Native islanders fell in love with the instrument and made it their own calling it ‘ukulele, a Polynesian word meaning “the jumping flea.”  American tourists to the islands took the instrument back to the U. S. where it found great popularity during the 1920s.  After that period, the instrument fell into obscurity with a few resurgences, especially with the aforesaid Tiny Tim.  But it seems Iz’s (Israel Kamakawiwo╩╗ole) 1990 top-charting medley of “Over the Rainbow/Wonderful World” is what catapulted the instrument into today’s uke movement.
If you want to know more of its history, The Yocum Library has two books on the subject. The Ukulele: a Visual History by Jim Beloff (Backbeat Books, 2003) is a colorful look at the instrument’s history and current role in today’s music culture. For an in-depth exploration of the instrument read The 'Ukulele: a History by Jim Tranquada and John King (University of Hawai'i Press, 2012).  And if the craze takes hold of you, check out Funky Frets Music Store in Boyertown for upcoming ukulele events: www.funkyfrets.com.

Editor's Note: The URL above (for funkyfrets) was corrected from www.funkfrets.com to www.funkyfrets.com on 6/8/16.

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