Plucky Little Guy: 10 Reasons Why Ukulele Rocks The World
Ukuleles first became popular outside Hawaii in the '20s when young thrill seekers discovered they were easy to play and small enough to tote along to roaring jazz-age parties. Since then, the instrument came to be viewed as a cute, diminutive oddity. But that reputation is no doubt due to some of the human oddities ― ahem, Tiny Tim ― identified with it.
Ukulele has always had its serious devotees like Bruddah Iz and Herb Ohta and Herb Ohta Jr. who kept traditional ukulele music alive. Meanwhile, rock stars like George Harrison have long harbored an affection for the four-stringed wonder. Joe Strummer even got his start busking in the London subway system with one. But over the last few years the little guy has definitely been making hip comeback. Everyone is getting into it lately ― everyone from indie rockers like the Magnetic Fields and Tune-Yards to the more radio friendly likes of Train to the legions of kids busting out Travie McCoy covers on YouTube. It's a growing movement and it may be reaching critical mass. This past year Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls released an album of Radiohead songs played on the ukulele ― to say nothing of Hawaii-born Bruno Mars lending the uke some of his famous sex appeal. And now that Eddie Vedder is putting out a ukulele solo album, it's an official epidemic.
But why is this happening now? Who knows! But we're honoring this strangely cool occasion with a top ten list. Here are ten of our favorite uke heroes and heroines from around the world.
Want to know more about ukulele history? Check out MTV Hive's retrospective of the ukulele in pop culture. Let's start with
#10 Francois Peglau
#10 Francois Peglau
London-based Peruvian folk popster Francois Peglau usually favors the guitar, but he made this list on the strength of his plucky little sparkler "Sundays (Ukulele Song)." Watch the adorable video for the song. It's a steaming mug full of instant classic and one more bit of proof that the ukulele has earned a permanent spot in the indie music hall of fame.
Photo Courtesy of Francois Peglau/ Hans Neumann Next #9 Jen Kwok
#9 Jen Kwok
The ukulele has long been a tool of comedy, as demonstrated by Adam Sandler, Steve Martin, and Marilyn Monroe before them. Now a new generation of comediennes is exploring its possibilities. The US's Jen Kwok is an eternal Iggy favorite for such comedy ukulele hits as "Funny Fat Girl" and "No Matter How Hard You Try."
Photo Courtesy of Jen Kwok/Joanna O dela Rosa Next #8 Rosie and Me
#8 Rosie and Me
Super sweet folk pop group Rosie and Me hails from Curitiba, Brazil. They were one of our Artists of the Week last year. Yep, we love this acoustic trio and they love the ukulele! In our interview with her, band leader Rosanne Machado claimed to love the guitar the most, but we think her uke stylings in the video for "Bonfires" tell another story. And this is far from an isolated incident. We think they need to come out about their ukulele love. Look what good company they're in!
Photo Courtesy of Rosie and Me/Marcelo Stammer Next #7 Onda Vaga
#7 Onda Vaga
Argentinian campfire pop collective Onda Vaga uses a lot of different acoustic instruments to create their haunting yet festive sound. They've got everything from trombone to ― that's right ― the ukulele.
Listen closely, or watch videos such as their Take Away Show for La Blogoteque, you'll see that no Onda Vaga track is complete with out an appearance from a certain popular four-stringed instrument. In fact, we encourage you to watch the video for "Mambeado" and count the ukuleles. We mainly encourage this because it's a rad video.
Photo Courtesy of Onda Vaga Next #6 Jónsi
Iceland's Jónsi, of the golden falsetto and Sigur Rós fame, has made some high profile appearances with the ukulele. He performed "Go Do" off his solo album Go, on the BBC's Radio 1, with only his ukulele to accompany him. He even has a song called "Ukulele."
Observe the crazy uke style in this "Go Do" video. No doubt about it, Jónsi is one of the leading lights of this worldwide trend.
Photo: Getty/C Flanigan/FilmMagic Next #5 Zee Avi
#5 Zee Avi
Malaysian singer-songwriter Zee Avi is well known as both a guitarist and a ukulele player. She's gone on record recommending the ukulele as a great tool for writing songs while on tour. Of course, she also finds room for the little guy in her recordings and on stage. Watch her croon "You & Me" while accompanying herself on the ukulele live in Singapore. The ukulele gives it extra old-timeyness.
Photo: MTV Iggy Still Next #4 Headless Horseman
#4 Headless Horseman
New York indie duo Headless Horseman play unpredictable art pop with a handmade feel. Members Fareed Sajan and Conner O'Neill leave no musical stone unturned when looking for tools and inspiration. Glockenspiel? Check. Pitch shifter? Of course. Ukulele? Oh, yessss.
The members perform facing each other over a shared toms-and-microphones melange and the ever-inspirational ukulele is often front and center.
Photo: MTV Iggy Next #3 Nive Nielsen and the Deer Children
#3 Nive Nielsen and the Deer Children
Nive Nielsen of Nive Nielsen and the Deer Children has a true bond with one special ukulele in particular. This indigenous Inuk from Greenland prefers to compose and perform her endearing country folk songs about love, vacuum cleaners, and forgetting to make coffee, on her own little red ukulele.
If you think that's enchanting, wait 'til you actually hear them. Check out our exclusive footage of Nielsen and her ukulele at the Sundance Film Festival.
Photo: Girlie Action Next #2 Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra
#2 Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra
The ukulele has always lent itself to quirky covers of popular songs. This effect is multiplied to the point of stupefying awesomeness when you get an upwards of eight people all playing, say, Outkast's "Hey Ya" on the ukulele. Fact. Add Brett McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame to the mix and you might just have the greatest show on Earth. McKenzie is a founding member of New Zealand's Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra and, well, you kind of just have to see it. (For more ukulele orchestra fun, check out the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain's cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana.)
Photo Courtesy of Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra/Andrew Morley Hall Next #1 Jake Shimabukuro
#1 Jake Shimabukuro
This Hawaiian uke shredder of Japanese descent is the reigning king of ukes and is in many ways the inspiration for this list. Jake Shimabukuro may actually be the reason ukuleles are flying off music store shelves. People see him owning George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" in his now legendary YouTube video and they forget about the boring old guitar altogether.
That video now has more than 7 million views ― perhaps because no one can watch it just once ― and he's gone from being an Internet celebrity to putting out albums and touring the world, but he still finds the time to check in with his fans on YouTube now and again.
Photo Courtesy of Jake Shimabukuro/Danny Clinch More Lists