Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

Feel free to contact me at mason2042 at gmail dot com

Sunday, May 01, 2011

“Ukulele” by Daniel Dixon with Dixie Dixon and Jayne McKay (Gibbs Smith)

About two months ago, I posted a review on my music-DVD review blog of an entertaining documentary about the ukulele called “Mighty Uke” -
The film was a lighthearted but quite substantial look at the ukulele, encompassing the instrument’s history, its construction, visuals of unusual-looking ukes, examinations of well-known exponents of the instrument, and paeans to the uke’s ability to make people smile.

Now, along comes a profusely illustrated little book on “The World’s Friendliest Instrument”. It is a lighthearted but quite substantial look at the ukulele, encompassing the instrument’s history, its construction, visuals of interesting-looking ukes, examinations of well-known exponents of the instrument, and paeans to the uke’s ability to make people smile. Yet it does not simply cover the same material as the film did, but approaches the topic in its own, distinctive way. Clearly, there is quite a lot to say about this not-so-humble little music-maker.

As with the film, the emphasis is on how the ukulele is a user-friendly little instrument which has a long and illustrious history, sullied somewhat by a fallow period which in recent years has begun to give way to new glories. Author Daniel Dixon provides a look at the instrument’s origins in Portugal, and its journey to its adopted homeland of Hawaii. He also briefly acknowledges its influence in Brazil, where he calls it the cavaco, though it is more commonly referred to by the diminutive name, cavaquinho. (This is a very minor detail in Dixon’s book, but I seem to have missed it altogether in the DVD.) He raises doubts as to the veracity of the long-held tale of Joao Fernandes, who has most often been credited with introducing the Portuguese braguinho (Dixon prefers the term “machete”) to Hawaii. Alas, there were no musicologists documenting these events as they occurred, so Dixon’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. We then see how the instrument was adopted by Hawaiians after a somewhat sluggish start. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had very definitely taken a foothold on the islands.

From the 1910’s on, we see the instrument being spread far and wide, with Hawaiians bringing the uke to the mainland U.S., mainlanders discovering the uke on trips to Hawaii, Tin Pan Alley songwriters writing ukulele-themed songs which most often had little connection to what “real” Hawaiian music (even the Westernized varieties) sounded like, and a variety of American entertainers popularizing the uke as accompaniment to mainstream mainland music. We are introduced to such once-famous performers as Cliff Edwards (a/k/a “Ukulele Ike” and the voice of Jiminy Cricket), multi-instrumentalist Roy Smeck (who sometimes let his virtuosity play havoc with his musical taste, but was a most impressive ukist nonetheless), 1920’s singing stars Johnny Marvin and Wendell Hall, the hugely-popular (in England) singer/actor and proponent of the banjo-uke, George Formby, and the virtually forgotten May Singhi Breen. We meet them through short biographical sketches, photos, sheet music, and pics of their ukuleles, celebrating a decade-plus when the ukulele was a significant element in the world of show-business on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as the Pacific.

This was followed by that unfortunate period when the ukulele fell into a long period of disuse. Radio and t.v. host Arthur Godfrey, strumming and plugging a cheap, plastic uke on his programs, kept the instrument in the public consciousness, after which Tiny Tim brought it to “Laugh-In” and the world beyond. While Godfrey’s reputation has dimmed, and Tiny Tim is generally thought of with derision, Dixon is objective enough to soberly discuss their roles in the instrument’s history, giving them credit where due. In the meantime, Hawaiian virtuosi such as Eddie Kamae and Herb Ohta (a/k/a “Ohta-San”), along with jazz ukist Lyle Ritz, proved much more could be done on the instrument than simply strumming chords. This in turn led to the present-day emphasis on intricate melodies played on an instrument once thought to be too limited to achieve any degree of true complexity. This brings us to modern times, as we meet the ukulele’s 21st-century golden-boy Jake Shimabukuro, as well as such strumming self-accompanists as the late Iz and all-around man-about-music Ian Whitcomb, plus innovators such as James Hill and John King.

But the book is not just about people, it’s about the instrument itself. There are pictures of ukuleles made by Martin and Gibson, unusual variations such as the pineapple-shaped ukulele, the balalaika-shaped Ukalyka, the tiny fluke, and a variety of ukes with exotic designs imprinted on them. We learn how the instrument is manufactured, tour an important Hawaiian uke factory, and visit with a skilled craftsman who makes high-end instruments. We visit one of the many ukulele clubs which have sprung up in all sorts of places. There is much, much more, even chord charts and an introductory ukulele lesson!

“Ukulele” is a fairly slim, hard-bound volume which packs a lot of pictures, information, and opinion into its 144 pages. It’s an entertaining read as well as a painessly educational one. If you have any interest in the ukulele, or are just curious to find out what all the buzz is about, I suggest you might wish to pick up both this book AND the “Mighty Uke” DVD. Each one by itself is a treat. The two together are not only complementary, they can give you a pretty comprehensive view of this growing musical phenomenon.

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