Jake Shimabukuro is a world ambassador for the ukulele, filling concert halls across America -- and in Japan, Singapore, Russia and Brazil. His pipsqueak instrument's popularity in those far-flung places, he said, "really has been blowing my mind."
Next stop: Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall, where Honolulu-based Shimabukuro's sold-out Thursday show may feature a ukulele remake of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." His YouTube video of the George Harrison tune has nearly 13 million hits; that won't be lost on his audience, which is sure to draw from the dozens of ukulele clubs, workshops and jam sessions in the Bay Area, a hot spot for the instrument's laid-back sound.
"Everybody's asking, 'Why? Why the resurgence?' " said Mike DaSilva, an ex-software engineer who custom builds ukuleles in his Berkeley shop, selling them worldwide for an average price of $3,000. His answer: The instrument is accessible; there's the sense that anybody can play it. Or maybe there's a backlash to "American Idol."
"Who knows? Everybody was so passive, just watching," said DaSilva. "Now they're doing something -- playing the ukulele."
A member of the guitar family -- but with only four strings instead of six, and a trimmed-down two-octave range -- the ukulele has come a long way since the days of Tiny Tim's 1968 "Tiptoe Through the Tulips."
It's estimated that about 600,000 ukuleles are sold each year in the United States. The tiny instrument cuts a mighty profile from Santa Cruz -- whose ukulele club has been the subject of documentaries and, with an email list of 2,800, is said to be the world's largest -- to Sebastopol, where a ukulele festival is scheduled for May 25. For baby boomers, the uke carries a whiff of nostalgia. For the surf crowd, it's as hip as hula.
Do a Google search on "ukulele" and you'll find clubs and classes in Orinda, San Francisco, San Jose. Ukulele Club Silicon Valley meets monthly at a Mountain View coffee shop for a crowded singalong jam session. Members of a Vipassana meditation center in Redwood City have formed Sona's Dharma Strummers club, with the tongue-in-cheek motto: "Strum your way to samadhi." Also in Redwood City, there's a group called BUG (Banjo Ukulele Group), whose members often play the banjolele, a uke spinoff.
With 37-year-old Shimabukuro, the ukulele has found its Eric Clapton. Introduced to the instrument at age 4 by his mother, an accomplished player, he is a virtuoso hero for the instrument, collaborating with Béla Fleck, Cyndi Lauper and Yo-Yo Ma. Now Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder are playing the ukulele in concerts and "kind of showing off its cool side," said Shimabukuro. "Young people see them playing it and go, 'Oh, man, I want to play the ukulele.' "
It's much easier to play than, say, the violin or guitar. Learn a handful of simple chords, and you're on your way, strumming those nylon strings through "Bye Bye Love" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane."
"If you've got a decent sense of rhythm, if you can tap your hand on the steering wheel of your car, you can probably strum the ukulele to the same song," said Richard Johnston, co-owner of Palo Alto's Gryphon Stringed Instruments, which expects to sell about 500 ukuleles this year.
On the other hand, many seasoned guitarists enjoy the ukulele because it forces them to "skip the filigree -- all the extra notes and inside harmonies you're drawn to on the guitar. It teaches you to focus on the melody, the song," said Michael Simmons. The Peninsula-based editor's Ukulele Occasional magazine covered the uke scene a decade ago; now his Fretboard Journal addresses ukulele topics. He compares the instrument to the Chihuahua -- small, overlooked, but loaded with personality.
In the Hawaiian language, "ukulele" means "jumping flea," and Hawaii is where the instrument is most "culturally embedded," said Stephen Sano, chair of Stanford University's music department. Sano teaches a course on Hawaiian slack key guitar, with a side trip through the ukulele. He has co-authored (with Daniel Ho, a top uke performer) a new ukulele instruction manual for elementary school students. He commissioned Santa Cruz luthier Rick Turner to build a ukulele using the same stock of Alaskan cedar that went into Bing Concert Hall's snow-white stage floor. Shimabukuro expects to play the "Bing ukulele" on a song or two at his Stanford show.
In his Palo Alto living room, Sano strums the instrument, a beauty. Its 11-inch body is crafted from the Alaskan cedar. Its back and sides are made from koa, the native Hawaiian wood. Its neck is mahogany, its fingerboard ebony. Its sound is light and bright.
"There's a word in the Hawaiian language, nahenahe, which means relaxed and peaceful, laid back, mellow," Sano said, "and there's that kind of aesthetic" that flows through Hawaiian music.
Brought to Hawaii in the late 19th century by Portuguese immigrants, the ukulele stormed the mainland in 1915 at San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition. A guitar and ukulele ensemble at the Hawaiian Pavilion became a national sensation.
Ubiquitous in the Jazz Age, the uke, and Hawaiian music, generally, reached a zenith of popularity in the mid-1920s. Its star faded during the Great Depression, then rose again after World War II, when GIs brought the baby guitars home from the Pacific, and Arthur Godfrey played his ukulele on national television. It's had its ups (Martin Mull playing his zany "Ukulele Blues") and downs (Tiny Tim, you say?), but never has gone away.
"It's such silly fun," said Sandor Nagyszalanczy, a founding member and director of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz. "There's so little pretension. If you know three chords, you can strum along, and everyone is a hero."
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
Tickets: $10-$60, sold out; add your name to a list for returned tickets at http://live.stanford.edu
Also: June 14, Mountain Winery, Saragota, $32.50-$49.50, www.mountainwinery.com
some Area ukulele clubs and classes
Banjo Ukulele Group in Redwood City: email@example.com
Berkeley Ukulele Club: www.ukemaker.com (click on "More")
Island Hawaiian Studios in Alameda: http://halaumakana.wordpress.com/monthly-kanikapila
San Francisco Ukulele Rebellion: www.meetup.com/San-Francisco-Ukulele-Meetup
San Jose Ukulele Club: http://sanjoseukeclub.org
Sona's Dharma Strummers in Redwood City: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz: www.ukuleleclub.com
Ukulele Club Silicon Valley: https://sites.google.com/site/ukuleleclubsiliconvalley
Ukulele Jams in San Jose: http://ukulelejams.com/registration.php