A Musical Underdog

The other day my wife and I asked each of our children what new law would they pass if they were president. Our nine-year-old daughter said that she would make learning a musical instrument a requirement for school-aged children. This reminded me of a documentary I once saw called Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog, which featured a segment on Canadian schools that did in fact make learning an instrument mandatory. In this particular instance, all elementary students are introduced to the ukulele in the fourth grade as part of their comprehensive education. They are then required to play the instrument for a minimum of two years. Students who stick with it can join an advanced ukulele ensemble which makes an annual pilgrimage to Hawaii to perform between two and five shows per day for two weeks, give lessons to the locals and receive instruction from the native greats.

Everyone is aware of the association between Hawaii and the ukulele. Very few, however, are likely to be aware of its history or its deep-rooted significance in Hawaiian culture. The ukulele first appeared in Hawaii in the late 1800s when Portuguese emigrants brought its predecessor to the islands. Some of the first composers of ukulele music were the kings and queens of the Kingdom of Hawaii. The Pan Pacific Exposition of 1915, attended by 17 million people in San Francisco, brought the ukulele to the continental United States, and by extension the rest of world, changing pop culture forever. These days ukulele enthusiasts across the globe, and especially in Hawaii, take part in kanikapila, or ukulele jam sessions.

The documentary’s narrator states that, “For many the ukulele is a joke. Its a kitschy, Hawaiian novelty or a relic from a bygone era.” That opinion has fallen in and out of favor several times over the last century but the ukulele is currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity and is quite possibly at an all-time peak in interest. This is because the accessibility of the ukulele allows those who have been discouraged by music in the past to finally unleashed their inner-musician. Jake Shimabukuro, who is one of the most well known, and perhaps one of the best, ukulele players in the world said, “It’s the underdog of all instruments and when people see it they don’t expect all of these sounds coming from this little thing.” I think that sums it up as well as it can be. The ukulele is an underdog, it’s under-appreciated, but it’s also unprecedented in its size-to-might ratio.