The ukulele is everywhere. The other morning, for example, well before 8 a.m., a heavyset young man with meaty hands and braided hair sat hunched over his ukulele — the words “Just be kind, dammit” taped to the front of his instrument — on State Street, quietly strumming. Although he had a sign asking for donations, there were no passersby. That was not the point. As I got closer, I could hear him singing — in something between a whisper and a prayer — “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” A national anthem of sorts for ukulele players, the song has become so ubiquitous you forget how touching it really is. He played it, he explained, to get the day off to a good start.
Somewhere around 2003, Victoria Vox was trying to teach herself that same song on the guitar, inspired by Hawaiian singer and uke player Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwoʻole. She was living in Green Bay, Wisconsin, having recently graduated from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she first encountered the instrument. A fellow student was playing some “silly perverted songs with sassy lyrics.” The ukulele didn’t really “make sense” to Vox but she had an inkling it could be legit.
As she practiced “Somewhere over the Rainbow,” her musical mentor, a retired postal worker, interrupted her efforts. “You need a ukulele,” he called out. “I’ll get you one of mine,” she remembered him adding. It turned out he had 29 vintage ukuleles hanging on his wall. “I think he had all the ukuleles in Green Bay,” Vox said. Before that, Vox had only had limited exposure to the instrument. Today, she does all her composing on the ukulele. “I can pretty much do anything on it. I can be silly. I can do tearjerkers. I can go wherever I want.”
This Saturday, September 22, Vox will be in Santa Barbara at the Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church, first leading a ukulele tutorial workshop at 5:30 p.m. and then performing a full concert at 7 p.m. At the workshop, Vox will teach chords, melody, and lyrics to two of her original songs; she’ll also teach the groove, something that can’t be learned on YouTube. The songs include time-signature changes, and the trick, she said, will be getting students to navigate these “without a hiccup.” In concert, Vox frequently uses a loop station that allows her to lay down a melody line over her chords while singing on top of that and also accompanying herself on mouth trumpet. Most of Vox’s songs are originals in the folk-pop vein; she draws inspiration from the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Nanci Griffith but delivers with a big-voiced croon.
Vox fell into the ukulele before its latest resurgence, which she said started about the same time YouTube was just taking off. One of the first hits to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro, the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele, ripping it up with his jaw-dropping rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Since then, Eddie Vedder has released his solo uke album, and the world has discovered — albeit after the fact — how former Beatle George Harrison was an ardent evangelist when it came to the ukulele, pretty much foisting one on anyone who visited his home.
There’s something mysteriously irresistible about the ukulele; it’s small, it’s cheap, and it’s easy to play. Lots of chords can be executed with only one finger on one fret. Its sound is big enough to make a dent but won’t intrude on the neighbors next door. The ukulele is famously unintimidating. You play it; you don’t practice it. It’s fun, not a commitment. It is to musical instruments what the fling is to romance. “It’s just so much fun,” said Vox.
The ukulele has also given birth to a wide-ranging subculture of gentle musical nerds seeking communion. There are ukulele clubs whose members go to ukulele festivals. The ukulele craze has gotten so big it now can sustain sectarian splits, fissures, schisms, and rival sects, though all pretty much good-natured and sweet spirited.
Hawai‘i isn’t really the birthplace of the Ukulele — the former Portuguese island Madeira is — but it may as well be. Vox remembers playing ukulele at a performance in Hawai‘i in 2005. “I was asked to stop playing it,” she said. “Here I was, this white chick from the mainland, and I’m playing their music.” Since then, Hawai‘i’s hard-core traditionalists have been overrun by the march of time, not to mention a wide array of fusion variants. Vox has been back since and received a warmer response. She doesn’t pretend to play traditional styles. “They let go and embraced it,” she said.
Within the ukulele universe, there are divergent opinions as to the proper pronunciation of the instrument. Vox favors the old school Americanized variant “Yuke-oo-lay-lee” as opposed to the more muy tres authentico “Ook-oo-lay-lee.” As she explained it, “When I’m going to Paris or Florence, I say Paris or Florence; I don’t say ‘Par-ee’ or Firenze.”
The popularity of the ukulele has been in perpetual upwelling mode for about 20 years, with one new wave crashing after the next. When the most recent wave started to swell back around 2010, Vox remembers worrying, “Man, what am I going to do when this becomes uncool again, when it’s unhip?” Based on the ukulele’s ability to defy gravity, she needn’t worry. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere,” she said.
Victoria Vox will be in Santa Barbara Saturday, September 22, at the Live Oak Unitarian Universalist Church (820 N. Fairview Ave., Goleta). Her workshop begins at 5:30 p.m., with a concert following at 7 p.m. See victoriavox.com/shows.