The growing popularity of ukuleles; one of the best success stories for music in the last few years. But from whence did the instrument come? Why has the demand for them outstripped their production? Why do people love playing them?

Adaptated from two traditional instruments from Portugal, the first ukuleles were made in Hawaii in the 1880s by Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Jose do Espirito Santo. The name comes from one of the queens of Hawaii, Lili’uokalani, and translates roughly to “the gift that came here.” San Francisco’s 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition introduced ukuleles to the public for the first time. This led to Tin Alley song writers to picking up the sound and quickly spreading across the world.

In the years following World War II, ukuleles became little more than toys. Shoddy, mass produced instruments were popular with kids for awhile. And due to entertainers like Tiny Tim and George Formby, they were a cheap joke.

But the ukulele’s salvation was to come through its cheap nature. As recession and inflation rear their ugly heads, people have flocked to the ukulele as an alternative to costlier instruments. Also to its benefit is the ease and speed with which you can learn to play it.

A few sources cite Paul McCartney playing at the “Concert for George” as the spearhead for the ukulele’s resurgence of fortune. But he is by no means the only famous musician playing them. Both Amanda Palmer and Eddie Vedder have put out ukulele based albums in the last few months, Palmer’s being entirely comprised of Radiohead covers. Magnetic Fields and Gothic Archies frontman Stephen Merritt often plays them on his albums. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain have sold out shows all over Europe, culminating in playing the, usually quite serious, BBC Proms. And Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s almost nauseatingly ubiquitous version of ‘Over the Rainbow” has done more for drawing attention back to the uku than just about anything.

The real mark of success for the ukulele, though, is on YouTube. At last count, there were over eighty four thousand videos on the web site. Ranging from how to videos, to indie originals, to cover songs played in a teenager’s bedroom and running the gamut from highly professional to the poorest quality you could imagine. But what they all have in common is a love of the instrument.

The growing popularity of ukuleles is summed up very simply: it is a fun instrument. One cannot help but smile as they pluck the strings. Though easy to learn, it never ceases to be entertaining. And that also applies to the listening as well.

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