The humble ukulele, a guitar like musical instrument descended from Portuguese string instruments—and adapted and evolved by Polynesian culture—has found a home in America.
Popularized by Hawaiian musicians during the reign of Hawaii’s last king, David Kalakaua—a monarch who also encouraged dancing the hula, which had been banned by colonial forces—the ukulele came to represent the musical culture of the islands and was soon heard in Japan and Europe, before appearing in San Francisco just over a century ago at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.
Soon, the ukulele found its way into the performances of vaudevillians on the coast. They traveled inland, introducing the instrument and its perky, sentimental tones to jazzers from California to New York. They discovered that the small, highly portable instrument was convenient and easy to learn and incorporate into ensembles. Most importantly, they learned that the ukulele’s tone and timber—happy and pluckily transcendent—were the source of much audience joy. Even American folksters and makers of hillbilly music were on board with this four-string wonder, incorporating it into their repertories with ease.
Ukuleles continued to be popular with both audiences and musicians through the middle part of the 20th century. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the instrument had secured a solid place in the annals of American popular culture. It was featured nearly weekly on the “Arthur Godfrey amd His Friends”—a precursor to “The Tonight Show”—by the host, who sported a baritone model and often performed before large studio and broadcast audiences with his band the Little Godfreys.
Of course by the end of the ’60s, as American culture was being totally transformed by the counterculture, the ukulele was on hand. An Englishman named Tiny Tim took the performance of the instrument to new heights, both delighting and confounding American audiences with his ukulele-drenched renditions of songs like “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
After a period of quiet in the years that followed America’s cultural revolution, the ukulele reappeared in the ’90s and its popularity once again soared. On the strength of personalities and performances like those of the legendary Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole and his veritable successor, Jake Shimabukuro, the ukulele saw a revitalization as Americans flocked to music stores to buy an instrument that was easy to learn and enchanting to hear.
As popular as it has ever been, the magical four-string Hawaiian wonder is now the instrument of choice among a whole set of young hipsters who dig its sound, its ease of application and its effect on audiences.
But mastering this instrument still requires the same attention and dedication as any musical endeavor. Many self-taught players never get past strumming four strings at once, pounding out each beat with heart and relish but ignoring or eschewing the sublime sounds at their fingertips.
Into this creatively fertile situation comes Jim D’Ville, a multi-
D’Ville met with Weekly Alibi about the upcoming ukulele weekend and what it offers both the casual player and the greater audience of plucky, string-loving Americans.
Weekly Alibi: How long have you been out here in Albuquerque?
Jim D’Ville (tuning ukulele): About six months.
Okay. Let’s have a conversation about the ukulele!
For the past 10 years, I’ve been a professional, traveling ukulele instructor and performer. For the past six years, I’ve been living in an Airstream trailer full time with my wife and traveling around the US and Canada teaching the ukulele.
Wow, that’s crazy—six months in an Airstream with a ukulele. Sounds like there’s a song in that. How was that?
I was teaching and doing gigs, so it was great. I’m more a teaching professional than someone who is used to setting up gigs. So six years on the road teaching people how to play the ukulele, primarily trying to get them off the book, off the songbook. There’s all these ukulele clubs [in the US and Canada] and they all sit around and look at the book. The music that comes out sounds like this. [D’Ville] strums one chord repeatedly, hitting each beat equally up and down].
So, it’s all strumming?
Yeah, no dynamics or inflection. My mission is to get people off the book and teach them musicality.
Does that mean teaching them technique?
Yes, that’s important, but I also teach them how to become a better musician, a more organic musician. Learning to listen is a great skill.
I do notice a lot of ukulele players out and about in the community. Many of them just play that up and down strumming pattern though, and about four chords.
Yeah, we call that the hum and strum. That’s what I’m trying to change.
Well for some, it’s hard to sing and play an instrument at the same time. But tell me more about your work as a traveling music teacher.
After six years of doing that, I just got burned out from towing the trailer, basically. My wife and I didn’t want to go back to the rain on the West Coast so we came here. Albuquerque is a hotbed of ukulele activity.
There are at least five ukulele clubs in Albuquerque. There’s also a couple of them up in Santa Fe. The weather, the food, the people, the airport in Albuquerque—those are the reasons we moved out here with our ukuleles.
Tell me about your recent adventures in Albuquerque.
I visited most of the ukulele clubs and had been here before to teach, so people here knew my name. I’m also a contributing editor to Ukulele Magazine, so folks here know about my work. I’ve been going around, reintroducing myself. There’s about four days out of the week where you can find some ukulele activity here in Burque. I’ve also been doing some private teaching and group lessons at the Albuquerque Institute of Music. I’ve been trying to reestablish myself here, that’s why I organized the Ukulele Weekend.
What’s that all about?
It’s a daylong event at Outpost Performance Space. We’ll be doing a number of workshops focusing on different genres like blues, ragtime, jug band and country music. My friend Del Rey, one of the great ukulele players in the world, will be a featured artist. She’s coming in from Seattle. It’s a full day of workshops followed by an afternoon concert. We’ll repeat the same program up in Santa Fe on Sunday at the Performance Space at [La Plancha] de Eldorado.
Tell me more, please.
The workshops are open to the public. You have to know a little bit about the instrument—I would say advanced beginner level—to participate. If you know your first basic chords, that will do. It’s not a beginner-beginner event though. It’s 85 bucks for the whole day.
What are your goals for this event? How do you get people more engaged with their instrument?
My main workshop right now is called “The Emotional Value of Chords.” So, with seven chords coming out of a major scale, each one has its own emotional power to it. My approach to this is to get people to understand what the emotional impact of different sounds are and then let that come through in their playing. Once they have that in their ears, so to speak, then we learn about how the important words in song lyrics fall on those chord changes, those emotional changes. I tell my students that country music is great because you only really need three chords because the genre only has two basic emotions: either she’s gonna stay or she’s gonna go. The chord she stays on is the four and the one she leaves on is the five. That’s the score.
Music theory like that is very important!
That’s the fun thing about it, all the possibilities! A lot of people are coming to the ukulele later in life, and people are still into it. I’ve been all over the world and in almost every city I’ve traveled to, there’s a ukulele club. The exciting thing for me is going into a place where they’re strumming out “This Land Is Your Land” and turning them on to the emotional value of each chord, fingered notes, what songs are really doing, and it just changes them completely.
That sounds really rewarding.
Oh yeah. In fact, everyone can take my classes. I gear them so that you’re not coming here to learn the ukulele, you’re coming here to listen, learn about song structure and have a really good time.