Uke Can Do It!

This year seven RPM Challenge albums from Newfoundland and Labrador were recorded using ukulele as the main instrument. The cute guitars squeezed their way onto plenty of the other 138 albums submitted too. What happened? Have people gone ukulele crazy? Is this toy-sized instrument from Hawaii taking over the RPM Challenge?

Lauren Power investigates.
Photos by Darrell Edwards

Chris Parsons of the St. John's Ukelele Orchestra

The ukulele is the sweetheart instrument of St. John’s. Seven complete albums submitted as part of this year’s RPM Challenge were performed exclusively on ukuleles, with countless others incorporating the fun-sized instrument into their projects.

At the forefront of the local ukulele renaissance is musician Matt Grant. As a three-year RPM veteran with the St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra, host of a monthly ukulele jam and leader of Holy Trinity High’s fifteen-piece ukulele club, Grant has watched the city’s love of itty-bitty guitars grow in leaps and bounds.

“Ukuleles still have a bit of an underground feel to them, and everyone loves an underdog,” says Grant. “I’m not sure how much longer this will last, though, since they’ve been steadily increasing in popularity over the past few years. They haven’t yet gotten as popular as they were in the early 1900’s, say, but they’re well on their way. They’re the official instrument of YouTube.”

Rebecca Gladney of The Uke Hunts

On YouTube, videos by ukulele virtuosos Jake Shimabukuro (“Ukulele Weeps”) and the late Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”) have become some of the most viewed videos of all time, alongside other videos by folks like Burlington, Ontario’s Walk Off the Earth and Zooey Deschanel.

Elsewhere, the humble instrument (whose name translates from Hawaiian as “jumping flea”) has been associated with innumerable high-profile musicians, from Fozzie Bear to Eddie Vedder, whose all-uke album “Ukulele Songs” was released in 2011.

Local music shops have taken notice of the trend, as well.

“Ukes are the hottest item we sell these days,” says Long & McQuade’s Rick Lambe. “We have several people a day coming in for ukes now, from toddlers to the elderly.”

Hannah Wadman-Scanlan aka Hannah Banana

Why are they popular? For starters, they’re cheap.

“I think it’s an entry level price for a valid instrument,” he says. For thirty dollars, you can get an instrument that’s of a decent quality. Sure, he says, you can score a recorder for cheaper, but the world really doesn’t need another atonal rendition of “The Mummer’s Song”, thanks.

“It’s also very easy to learn the ukulele because there are so many instructional videos online,” says Grant. “It’s not hard to find a supportive ukulele community online where you can get any kind of question answered.”

14-year old Hannah Wadman-Scanlan, who recorded as Hannah Banana, brought her all-ukulele album, the irrepressibly optimistic Silver Linings, to life with the help of online resources.

“My first ukulele was a bright orange soprano,” says Wadman-Scanlan. “At that point, I didn’t know how to play the ukulele, but with the help of Google, I taught myself how to play. I have a brown concert ukulele now, but I still love my orange uke because it’s just so cute,” she says.

Portability is another reason the instrument has found favour among musicians. Lugging gear from gig to gig is much easier when your instrument is the size of a baby.

Adam Reid of The St. John's Ukulele Orchestra

“If you’re going to the cabin or camping, it’s not hard to bring the uke along. I brought my uke with me to the Arctic,” says Grant.

Portability also makes it easier for musicians to come together and jam. The monthly ukulele jams at Hava Java which Grant organizes have brought many of the city’s uke enthusiasts together.

“We’ve adapted a songbook from a ukulele club in England and added a few more songs we like to play,” he says. “The song book has a huge range in the kinds of songs we play: folk, rock, and Britney Spears.”

The songs they play range from easy to medium difficulty, but advanced players like to add in over top.

Another ukulele RPMer, Heather Nolan (Lady Brett Ashley), took advantage of the uke’s tiny frame to record in some less-than-spacious locales.

“This year, I couldn’t really find anywhere to record that I was satisfied with the sound of,” says Nolan. “The ukulele was wonderful for recording in arbitrary locations, as one of them was a locker that I stuffed myself and my boyfriend’s laptop into.”

Amanda Mews of The St. John's Ukulele Orchestra

“It was a very tight squeeze,” she says. “I had to try three times to finish it without my limbs going to sleep. I had the ukulele propped so that it was facing straight up and I was sort of strumming sideways. This really would not have worked on many instruments.”

All other reasons aside, the love for the ukulele comes down to the sound, which could be described as the auditory cure for seasonal affective disorder. The ukulele is a famously “sunny” instrument, producing tones that are warm and bright.

When I mention this to Ally Baird, member of the band (ahem) The Uke Hunts, she agrees.

“I’ve only been playing uke for a year and it’s renewed my interest in making music,” she says. “I love how they sound, how they feel, and how they make me feel when I play them. I’ve got a bit of a ukulele acquisition problem, and I’ve become a uke-pusher, encouraging family and friends to try one out. They make me happy and it makes me happy to see others getting the same enjoyment from them. They’re happy instruments.”

Ally Baird of The Uke Hunts

But ukuleles aren’t a one-trick pony, and there’s no need to worry about a ukulele turning every sad song into “Blue Hawaii”.

“When I got my first uke, I fell in love with the light, easy sound, but was already in love with bleak, depressing chord progressions,” says Nolan, who uses the uke to melancholy effect on Lady Brett Ashley’s RPM album. “I love the way a minor chord sounds on the ukulele. It’s a really lovely sadness.”

“I was completely surprised, from a guitar player’s perspective, how well the uke integrates into the sound,” says Justin Pittman of The Uke Hunts. “It has such a happy, but percussive, tone that really integrates into a band. The uke really sits into its own frequency register in the mix and blends so well with the rest of the instruments.”

Though some may fear ukes will soon hit the oversaturation point, artists that play the ukulele live know that its place as a crowd pleaser is secure.

“Audiences smile as soon as a musician picks up a uke,” says Baird. “Some people will poke fun, but when they hear a competent player perform, they can’t help but respect the instrument.”

Listen online
Deirdre Maguire —
Hannah Banana —
Kitten Camisole —
Lady Brett Ashley —
Mari Lannon —
St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra —
The Uke Hunts —

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