From my Sunday column:
When Eddie Vedder, the reclusive, notoriously angry lead singer of grunge-band Pearl Jam, announced his latest album in March, the headline read like something from The Onion: “Eddie Vedder to release solo album of ukulele songs.”
It wasn’t a joke. The singer, known better for his growling anthems about teenage suicide and the war dead, had turned to strumming tunes on a Hawaiian instrument that many on the mainland think of as a kitsch tourist gift.
He’s not the only one. Other big-name musical acts have suddenly christened the ukulele the instrument of choice, from country darling Taylor Swift,who is taking it up at her sold-out stadium shows, to art-house act Amanda Palmer, who just released an album singing Radiohead songs accompanied by the ukulele. There have always been well-known fans, from George Harrison to Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, who used it in his chart-topping recording of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What A Wonderful World” in 1993. But the ukulele’s popularity has exploded over the past two years, fueled in large part by the quirky musical community fostered on YouTube.
Peopled by thousands of teenagers in their bedrooms talking into webcams, the five-year-old video-sharing site is filmmaking at its most stripped down. Those with something to say, and with an amusing way of saying it, get noticed.
Enter the ukulele, which is about as bare bones an instrument as you can get. It’s four strings. Two octaves. In the Hawaiian language, it means, “Jumping fleas.” The name fits the sounds: tiny, bouncy and jubilant. Perfect for YouTube, it even fits easily within a computer screen, shot close-up.
Julia Nunes learned to love the ukulele from her musician parents. She began posting her recordings of popular songs on YouTube long before the instrument caught on. She now has almost 200,000 subscribers to her channel, and her videos are viewed by millions. “YouTube was the perfect place to display that kind of content,” she said.
YouTube trends manager Kevin Alloca points to one of the most popular videos on the site, with more than 40 million views worldwide: a Japanese boy plays a Jason Mraz song on the ukulele. There’s something utterly endearing about the size of the stringed instrument fitting the small boy (it also helps that he can barely make out the English words, instead creating a hybrid-mumble language, as he otherwise nails the song perfectly).
It’s partly the joie de vivre the ukulele expresses that makes it instantly likeable. “If it’s an angry song, it’s a weird juxtaposition,” Nunes said. “If it’s a happy song, it amplifies the happiness.”
Elly Lonon, an amateur ukulele player who posts videos regularly on YouTube, picked up the ukulele after she underwent chemotherapy for lymphoma. “If I’m going to have fun, I want to actually have fun,” she said. “Just show me someone who is playing the ukulele who is not having fun.”
Jake Shimabukuro thinks the instrument sounds like children laughing.
“There aren’t a lot of things in this world right now that make you want to be silly or be a kid,” said Shimabukuro, a well-known professional ukulele player and native Hawaiian. He’s played the instrument since he was a child and tours solo as an adult, but he didn’t achieve much mainstream fame until a stranger posted a video of him on YouTube. He had performed the song on a New York television channel, and in it, he’s paying tribute to George Harrison, another famous ukulele singer, in Central Park.
He’s not sure how many people caught the TV show, but by the time he flew home to Hawaii, a million people had seen it.
Update: the print version of this article incorrectly stated that a ukelele has four chords. It should have read “four strings.” You can play many, many chords to beautiful effect on the ukulele. I apologize for this error.