Revisiting the ukulele (so soon)

tranquadaUkulele.jpgI naively assumed that last week's post about a story on the ukulele would be my first and last entry on that subject. But no. It turns out that former Los Angeles journalist (and current Occidental College communications executive) Jim Tranquada literally wrote the history book on the ukulele, with the late John King. The Ukulele: A History was published this month by University of Hawaii Press and tells the story of how "an obscure four-string folk guitar from Portugal became the national instrument of Hawai’i, of its subsequent rise and fall from international cultural phenomenon to 'the Dangerfield of instruments,' and of the resurgence in popularity (and respect) it is currently enjoying among musicians from Thailand to Finland."

Tranquada says the story in The Daily that I linked to last week got a few things wrong.

The Madeirans who arrived in Hawai'i in 1879 were not fleeing a drought, but an invasion of phylloxera that devastated island vineyards, the mainstay of the Madeiran economy. The Hawaiian economy was not declining, but booming -- which is why sugar planters were reaching halfway around the world to recruit plantation laborers. The Madeiran machete, the immediate ancestor of the 'ukulele, was not eight inches long -- it was roughly the size of a standard soprano 'ukulele. The tuning wasn't "adjusted" -- it was transferred wholesale from another Madeiran import, the five-string rajao. And so on....

Yeah, yeah, I know -- it's just the 'ukulele, which, according to the Boston Globe, "ranks in most people's minds somewhere between asteroid dust and space junk." But why not get it right? The modern revival dates back to the late '80s -- long before Vedder, Deschanel, and the Descendants (whose soundtrack features slack key guitar, not 'ukulele.)

Tranquada, per the publisher's bio, is a great-great grandson of ukulele pioneer Augusto Dias. In his email Tranquada offers evidence of the instrument's soulfulness in accomplished hands, those of his late co-author, John King. I have to agree.

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