From the Japanese duo U900 to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, to pop acts like Amanda Palmer and Zee Avi, to the irreproachably cool tUnE-yArDs, you can barely avoid musicians trying out a tiny new axe these days. The trend may have reached its peak (or nadir, your call) with Eddie Vedder's new all-ukulele album.
How did the ukelele rise from Hawaiian resorts and the novelty ghetto to pop celebrity? We asked Sarah Lemanczyk to solve the mystery.
Jake Shimabukuro, whose ukulele version of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" gained him eight million views on YouTube and a world tour, says the instrument's odd tuning makes it easier to start playing. Stephin Merritt of The Magnetic Fields (the grandfather of the instrument's new cool) agrees. "The advantage of the ukulele for me is partly that it's always what we call desafinado – slightly out of tune," he told Lemanczyk, "and so am I. But I sound a little less slightly out of tune with the ukulele."
More Ukulele: Before the instrument achieved its hipster-cool, Steve Nelson (who happens to be Sarah Lemanczyk's husband) produced a pioneering report on ukulele jazz for Studio 360.
The Unofficial, Unintentional Studio 360 Ukulele Project Studio 360 has been a first-hand witness to the ukulele surge. Over the years lots of talented musicians have played here, and at times it seems as if most of them have toted a ukulele along for the visit. When Kurt Andersen noticed the trend earlier this year, Shara Worden told him it was because of utilitarian factors: it's just easier to pack a ukulele and bring it on tour. We've also had ukulele performances from Amanda Palmer, Zee Avi, and Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs – and recorded all of them on video:
Zee Avi performs "Kantoi"
Amanda Palmer performs "Creep"
Shara Worden performs "In the Beginning"
Merrill Garbus performs "Bizness"
Will you keep The World spinning?
Donations from listeners like you are absolutely crucial in funding the great music and human-centered global news you hear on The World. Recurring gifts provide predictable, sustainable support — letting our team focus on telling the stories you don’t hear anywhere else. If you make a gift of $100 or pledge $10/month we’ll send you a curated playlist highlighting some of the team's favorite music from the show Donate today to keep The World spinning.