Striking a chord: Musicians united by the ukelele
TEENAGER Zoë Bestel is the latest pop sensation to champion the ukulele. Dani Garavelli finds out why she chose an instrument so long out of fashion to express her musical talent and how other artists are exploring the sensitive side of the four-string guitar
I T TOOK Zoë Bestel five months to pick up the ukulele her friend had given her as a birthday present. But the moment the 14-year-old singer/songwriter started strumming it, she was hooked. Teaching herself to play with the help of online tutorials, she soon realised the four-stringed instrument once synonymous with hula dance and George Formby’s plinky-plonk vaudeville ditties could produce a sweeter sound which complemented her dulcet tones.
Now, less than two years later, this musical prodigy from Wigtown, in Dumfries and Galloway, is set to release her first single, 35 Missed Calls, after Steve Dowling of Distilled Records spotted her playing at a gig at the CatStrand Arts Centre in Castle Douglas. Since then, she has garnered an array of rave reviews. Writing in The Spectator, Toby Young said she was “destined for stardom”, while Duglas T Stewart of the BMX Bandits also counts himself a fan. Zoë has already supported internationally-acclaimed folk singer Emily Smith and written and performed a song to accompany a short film to promote the Tenth Spring Fling, an arts and crafts festival in Dumfries and Galloway in June.
The ukulele, an instrument invented in Hawaii in the late 19th century and popularised by Tin Pan Alley musicians, may seem an odd choice for a hip Noughties schoolgirl. But then, for the last few years it has been undergoing a massive revival.
With starter soprano models available for £20, it is the perfect instrument for a recession and ukuleles are flying off the shelves. Last year, 42 per cent of music shops surveyed in ahead of the Musical Instrument Retail Conference said the uke had seen the biggest rise in sales in the previous 12 months.
“If you think about a trumpet, you’re talking about £175 for the most basic model and that quite frankly will be rubbish. For £175, you can get quite some ukulele. You’re not quite talking Stradivarius but you’re talking about a very good instrument indeed,” says Stuart Butterworth, who runs ukulele workshops in Dumfries and Galloway. But it isn’t just about the cost. Over the past few years, a succession of musicians from Taylor Swift to American indie band Beirut have given the uke a kind of vintage cool.
Last year, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder brought out a solo collection of ukulele-backed songs, including Can’t Keep, and legendary guitarist Joe Brown recently announced he too is working on a ukulele album. Will.i.am, member of The Black Eyed Peas and judge on The Voice, was photographed holding one, while Hawaiian musician Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps on a uke in Central Park has taken YouTube by storm. It’s all a far cry from Kermit the Frog’s famous serenading of Miss Piggy with the song Ukulele Lady (complete with a lei round his neck) in the 70s, which took the instrument back to its roots.
And then there is the phenomenon that is The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, an eight-piece ensemble which has won an international following playing tongue-in-cheek versions of everything from Tchaikovsky to Lady Gaga. In 2009, the orchestra led a mass performance of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy at the BBC Proms accompanied by 1,000 strumming members of the public.
The result of all this exposure is that the ukulele is now the most sought-after of instruments; every music shop has an array of brightly-coloured starter models in its front window; they even come in SpongeBob SquarePants and Disney princesses versions.
In England, it is fast taking over from the descant recorder as the first instrument learned (much to the relief of many parents). In Scotland, too, the craze has started to take hold. Only a handful of schools have introduced it (and as Zoë has discovered, you can’t play a ukulele for your Standard Grade exam). But amateur groups have started springing up across the country, with the Knoydart Ukulele All Stars – possibly the world’s most remote musical enemble, whose 20 members represent one in six of the population of one of the last wilderness areas of Britain – attracting a small, but devoted fanbase.
“After the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain played at the proms we sold 100 of the instruments in one weekend,” says Peter Hutchison, instrument supervisor at Biggars Music in Glasgow. “Since then, we’ve been selling one or two of the cheaper models, which cost between £15-£30, a day and probably every couple of days we sell one for around £50. We have ukuleles in the shop that go up to £200-£300. When we first got them, I was really sceptical – who was going to spend that amount of money on these instruments, which are handmade, of solid wood to full Hawaiian spec? But they really sell.”
Butterworth, formerly the head of a school music department, took up the ukulele during three months enforced bed rest after a bout of pneumonia.
“One of the reasons the ukulele has become so popular is because it’s so easy to play,” he says. “The main difference is the narrowness of the neck compared to a guitar, and the fact you are only contending with four strings instead of six. The stretching of your fingers is not as difficult. If you take a C chord – when you’re learning to play guitar you practically have to dislocate your wrist to play it, but on the ukulele, it’s a one finger chord. Most of the chords we play in our groups are one, two or three-finger chords.
“At the end of a typical beginner’s session, we find they can comfortably play three or four chords and about 25 songs – that really wouldn’t be feasible on a guitar.”
Hutchison says the increased availability of ukulele music has also helped. “It used to be that the ukulele, banjo, mandolin music was all in the same browser together. Now there is a separate browser for ukulele music that’s probably got in the region of 100 books, like Disney songs, Taylor Swift, The Beatles, Black Sabbath – there’s so much more material for people to play.”
Zoë, who plays the oboe and the piano, was finally inspired to pick up her gift when she heard the track Hey Soul Sister by Train, which has a ukulele riff. “I really loved it ,” she says. “It was one of my favourite songs and I was like: ‘I want to learn that’.
“I taught myself, learning different ways to strum and different chords.
“A lot of people have said to me that they’ve been quite shocked, and thought ‘Ooh she’s going to play the ukulele’ because they think it’s some sort of comedy instrument – but when I play it, they are interested. They’re like ‘wow, she is really playing it, not in funny way’. They’ve told me it sounds like a harp, that it sounds quite beautiful, actually.”
Perhaps it was destiny. Since mastering the ukulele, Zoë has discovered her great grandmother, a concert pianist, once supported George Formby (who, in fact, mostly played the banjolele, a banjo/ukulele hybrid). And in another twist of fate, her performance of 35 Missed Calls was last year voted Number 27 in Dandelion Radio’s Festive 50, a feature the station inherited from John Peel, and Zoë’s mother Heather – who is also musical – was once a backing singer for a band which was performing on the John Peel Sessions. Now a psychotherapist, Heather is finding more and more of her time is taken up with managing her daughter’s fledgling career.
As for Zoë, she is happy to have found an instrument which looks set to launch her to stellar heights. “The ukulele is one of those funky and different instruments, so I’m not just another girl with a guitar,” she says. “I love my ukulele. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
THE RESURGENCE OF THE UKELELE
THE ukulele was invented in the late 19th century after a group of Portuguese immigrants travelled to Hawaii to work in the cane fields.
To celebrate their safe arrival in Honolulu, they played folk songs on braguinhas, small four-stringed guitars. Legend has it that those watching thought their fingers moved like jumping fleas – which is a rough translation of “ukulele”.
Soon local craftsmen set to work making their own hybrid version of the instrument, resulting in the ukulele we know today. It soon became very popular, with King David Kalakaua mastering it and introducing it to other royals.
In 1915, a ukulele ensemble played at the Hawaiian pavilion at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Associated with the exoticism and carefree lifestyle of the islands, it quickly took off on the US mainland, where companies started producing their own instruments.
Since then the ukulele has had its peaks and troughs; popularised by Tin Pan Alley musicians, top, it went into decline, only to enjoy a resurgence again in the Thirties and Forties, when Formby was at the peak of his career. Tiny Tim, above – famous for singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips in a falsetto voice – also brought it to a mass audience in the Sixties.
In the Seventies, however, the ukulele gave way to the guitar. Production plummeted and the only musician of note playing it was George Harrison whose passion for the instrument was honoured at his memorial concert when Paul McCartney opened his (and Eric Clapton’s) rendition of Harrison’s song Sometimes, with a solo ukulele accompaniment.
Today, however, thanks to the internet, the recession and the rise of Nu Folk, the ukulele is as popular as it has ever been.
• Zoë Bestel’s single 35 Missed Calls will be launched at the Belted Galloway in Newton Stewart tomorrow. She will be performing at the Mill in Gatehouse of Fleet and later at a ceilidh in Castle Douglas Town Hall on 2 June as part of the Spring Fling.