Chasing the jumping flea


In a December 2013 column I confessed to the ownership and operation of a ukulele. Since then a number of other furtive uke players have emailed to share their tales of four-stringed folly. Even so, I know deep-down that the ukulele is largely regarded as a novelty… something 1920s Ivy League guys played while hanging out of a Stutz Bearcat or heaven forbid, Tiny Tim’s instrument of choice.

It would be naïve to think that it could ever fully escape that image. Maybe uke players shouldn’t try to make it.

As I started studying more seriously, I became defensive about this image. When I told people what I was doing, I got the same reaction as if I’d told them I’d begun delving into the serious kazoo literature — if there is one, I humbly apologize.

Not just accepting other people’s definition of things, I started research on the ukulele. As it turns out, the instrument has a very colorful and cosmopolitan origin.

While associated most closely with Hawaii, the instrument we now know as a ukulele is actually a retooled version of the Portuguese machete de braga, commonly referred to as the machete. This Portuguese ancestor arrived in Hawaii aboard the ship Ravenscrag, in 1879. The Portuguese sailors regaled the natives with folks songs accompanied by the machete. Cabinet makers along for the voyage soon set up shop making the little guitars.

Renamed the ukulele, which in the Hawaiian language means “jumping flea,” the instrument was a favorite of the Hawaiian monarch, King David Kalakaua. With his endorsement, the die was cast.

By the turn of the 20th Century, it had become a popular souvenir and was winding its way into vaudeville. With the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco, the stage was set for the mainland discovery of Hawaii and its national instrument.

Much like plastic recorders, ukuleles were billed as “easy to play” and “gateways to serious musical study.” This is also the period when luthiers began to reclaim the uke from its toy instrument prison.

While the Big Band era attenuated demand, the post-World War II period saw a ukulele renaissance. Servicemen who’d been to Hawaii brought them back and ushered in a golden age. With Arthur Godfrey’s popular performances; Marilyn Monroe’s memorable strumming in “Some Like it Hot,” and Elvis Presley’s song in “Blue Hawaii,” the instrument staged a comeback.

Sadly though, this era came to a screeching halt with the 1969 Tonight Show appearances by Herbert Khaury a.k.a. Tiny Tim. But, just as it fell, it rose phoenix-like at the hands of virtuoso Eddie Kamae, who inspired legions of young players, most notably Jake Shimabukuro. Anyone who doubts the musical potential of the uke should watch a YouTube video of Jake performing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Jake is probably where my uke present journey began, but my first uke came around 1985. It was little better than a toy, bought at Maxie’s Pawn in Little Rock (a whole other story).

One bored afternoon, my best friend, Pete and I decided it would be a great idea to duct tape electric guitar pickups on the face of the uke. Maybe some of you will recall the episode of the Beverly Hillbillies when Jethro made the Bodine-o-phone. In short, stupid plus electricity equals funny memories — provided you live.

Since then, I have discovered that there are many fine electrified ukes, none of which requires life insurance. I’ve also discovered many different ukulele worlds. There are folks who play flamenco. There are those who play Renaissance or Baroque uke. I’ve even seen bluegrass.

Perhaps the largest group of enthusiasts inhabits and embraces the undeniable absurdity of it all. The Internet is littered with these delightful kooks. Here you’ll find intrepid souls like the UK duo, the Re-entrants. They appear to favor speed metal and a lot of other things a uke “shouldn’t” do. Myself, I’ve been banging out a little AC/DC, perhaps as homage to my first electric gig. Maybe Tiny Tim was onto something.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.