copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin
Betty Boop played the ukulele, as did Marilyn Monroe in "Some Like It Hot." George Formby, George Harrison, Tiny Tim and -- in "Blue Hawaii" -- Elvis Presley played ukuleles. There is currently something of a ukulele revival in such far-flung places as Hawaii (the instrument is associated with surf music), Australia, Tahiti, California, Japan and Paris.
A ukulele is a four-stringed instrument that evolved from the Portugese cavaquinho on certain islands in the Pacific Ocean. Patented in Hawaii in 1917, the most common model resembles a cute little Hawaiian guitar and it is tuned to the inflection of "my dog has fleas" (the fourth string goes up not down).
One recent Saturday night, the Ukulele Club de Paris threw a public party at the New Morning, which was decorated like a Tiki bar for the occasion. They are scheduled to tour Australia in June and Japan later in the year. Their CD "Manouia" is out on Universal/France. It is a cooperative group, there is no leader; the eclectic and lucid guitarist Dominique Cravic is one of an assortment of guiding lights.
He has played with Lee Konitz, Tal Farlow, Steve Lacy and Larry Coryell and currently he accompanies the veteran French singing star Henri Salvador. Cravic also continues to lead "Les Primitifs du Futur" (Future Primitives), a band of old-time jazz enthusiasts that includes the cartoonist Robert Crumb on banjo and mandolin. Crumb and Cravic first met while shopping for rare old 78 RPM records in a flea market. They shared their love of early 20th century popular music and jammed together with a washboard player. (The only new music Crumb likes is when new people play old music.) Crumb wrote a blurb for orchestra member Cyril LeFebvre's illustrated "Ukulele Method Book."
"My first 'real' musical instrument was a plastic 'Arthur Godfrey' ukulele given to me by my parents as a Christmas present when I was 12 years old," Crumb wrote. "I had attempted to make a cigar-box ukulele but that didn't work out too well.
"Anybody can learn to strum chords on a ukulele and you can take it anywhere and whack away on it while the gang sings the latest popular songs and old-time favorites. It serves as the perfect start-up string instrument. From it one can graduate to the guitar, tenor banjo or mandolin as I eventually did. Once I saw a nice 1920s ukulele with a slogan printed on the front of it, which read, 'Music self-played is happiness self-made.' Words to live by."
In Brazil the Portugese cavaquinho has remained more or less in its traditional form; there are young cavaquinho virtuosos in Brazil. The Hawaiians, on the other hand, made adjustments like replacing the steel strings with nylon to make the sound softer and the attack less violent. There are only four strings to deal with not six, and ukulele tuning is friendlier for chording than a guitar's.
The height of its popularity was in the 1920s, when Hawaiian music was big in general. It was a vaudeville instrument -- it can be defiantly corny. In the past, ukulele players were off the radar, alongside broomstick bass and pennywhistle players. Theirs being a fiercely treble instrument, the Parisian club's seven ukulele pickers (they all also sing) have added a baritone saxophone to play the bass part, similar to Adrian Rollini's role on the bass saxophone in the 1920s. (There is also a percussionist.)
Cravic is one of those instrumentalists who makes his love of playing music obvious, and he clearly has a lot of fun with a ukulele. It is also clear that he takes his fun seriously - he studied classical guitar at the Ecole Normale Superieure de Paris. Cravic and his fellow club members perform well-constructed compositions on sophisticated, expensive ukuleles with engraved Dobro-like coverplate resonators built specially for them by Mike Lewis, an English luthier in Paris. Their repertoire includes Hawaiian and Javanese tunes, sambas, comedy songs, repetitive instrumental passages a la Terry Reilly, original compositions, and old favorites such as Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues."
"This is not a toy! This is a real musical instrument!" is printed large, in red, and somewhat defensively on the first page of LeFebvre's method book. Followed by the slogan: "Adopt the uke attitude!" -- an attitude Cravic illustrates by carrying his ukulele in a tennis-racket sack. Happiness self-made.Mike Zwerin originally published this article in the International Herald Tribune.
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