My son Henry plays his ukulele in the morning, before the sun rises, before the curtains open, before the coffee maker purrs. I’m in bed, dreaming of dandelions, when I hear strumming so sweet and happy, gray skies turn blue and birds cease their back-and-forth to listen.
He might play for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, depending on his mood and the endurance of his dancing fingers.
Around our house, we call it the “uke.’’ Initially, we used the full name, but that was a mouthful and anyway it’s more fun to talk in abbreviated form. “Where’s the uke?” “No ukeing during dinner, please.” “Yes, the uke will fit in your backpack.’’
If you walk into our house on a sun-dappled day in April you’ll probably see the uke leaning against a fluffy cushion on our sofa, with that full-of-beans attitude reserved for politicians and jazz singers.
The uke knows it’s special.
Serendipity played a role in Henry’s discovery. I took a left into the fudge shop; he took a right into the music store.
“I was on Martha’s Vineyard,’’ says Henry, “and I went into a music store and saw an unusual instrument and figured out it was a ukulele. It sounded really good. I wanted a guitar at the time, but a guitar seemed like you needed a teacher and I wanted to do something in my free time, so I decided a uke was the way to go.”
Most people associate ukes with Hawaii and raven-haired hula dancers. That might’ve been the case long ago, but not now.
First, a little history. According to my friends at Wikipedia, ukes originated in the late 19th century in Portugal. Portuguese immigrants from Cape Verde and Madeira introduced the uke to the Hawaiian islands.
The instrument eventually made its way to the mainland, where it was picked up by vaudeville performers, including Roy Smeck, nicknamed “Wizard of the Strings.’’ And let’s not forget the frizzy-haired eccentric who came along in the 1960s, Herbert Khaury, better known as Tiny Tim of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips’’ fame.
Ukes took a backseat to electric guitars in the 1960s, but emerged once again in the 1990s, thanks to the Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose moving medley of “Over the Rainbow’’ and “What a Wonderful World’’ touched millions.
After yet another lull, the uke is making a comeback. Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, released a solo album last year called Ukulele Songs, a collection of tracks performed on, you guessed it, the uke.
CNN recently reported that uke lovers are on the rise throughout the world, including New York City, where a uke sub-culture is thriving in bars and restaurants among people seduced by the instrument’s intimacy.
“Ukuleles are the most global instruments in the world,’’ said Ken Bari Murray, who solos during open-mike night at Maui Tacos on Fifth Avenue in the shadow of the Empire State Building. “We like to notice that and foster it.’’
For the record, Henry, who just turned 11, got interested in the instrument long before the patrons at the taco joint.
After that enlightening trip to the Vineyard, he parked himself in front of the computer for days and surfed the web for uke players.
He did not find Vedder.
He found Sungha Jung, a music prodigy from South Korea with a Justin Bieber haircut and the intense focus of someone fully absorbed in his art. His interpretations of popular songs are astonishing. Henry also found Jake Shimabukuro, a 34-year-old Hawaiian sensation who compares uke playing to a long yoga session.
There is nothing like a good music video to inspire. Henry decided that he would have a uke and that he would buy it with his own money. Fair enough. He researched ukes and settled on the Guitar Center in Warwick.
The ukes were displayed by the front door, not far from the Strats, way far from the snares. Henry sat on a bench and strummed, just for the heck of it. He bought the light-brown one with the white edging made by Lanikai.
“I picked out one that was cheap enough that I could get with my own money, but would also fit my beginner level,’’ he says. “At the time, becoming a professional was not on my mind.’’
At first, he was lost. What’s a chord? What’s fingering? How to strum? Again, he sought help with the technology that had propelled him forward many times: YouTube music videos. For hours, he’d watch a tutorial from, say, ukeflip, on how to play Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,’’ until he felt he had it down.
“The strings started to loosen up a little,’’ Henry says. “My fingers started to get stronger. In the beginning, I struggled to get a clean chord, then it turned into a walk in the park.’’
Ukes are shaped like pears. The instrument is easy to carry to a friend’s house or to the park. Henry brought his uke to his fifth-grade class for “Hawaiian Day’’ not long ago and serenaded students while they slurped pineapple smoothies.
What makes the instrument really special is that it only has four strings. Henry likes that; less is more. A scarcity of strings makes it easier for him to improvise and pursue his passion of composing his own tunes, like the ditty he came up with just after reading the morning paper’s headlines:
I am bored.
The sun is shining no more.
The town is frowning all around.
I think it needs a merry-go-round.
Our cash-strapped city needs a lift, but playground apparatus won’t do. Give everyone ukes. That’ll perk them up.
Elizabeth Rau is an East Side resident who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org