My niece wants a ukulele for her 13th birthday. When I first heard this I started, did a double-take, and glanced to the heavens. Then I thought: Wait, awesome. A ukulele. And I proceeded to volunteer to be the acquisitor of said micro-guitar, which is actually in the lute, not guitar, family, I now know.
Ukuleles are, of course, ridiculous musical instruments, hollow, fretted, fearlessly tiny objects with four nylon strings. One helplessly conjures Tiny Tim plinking a ukulele while bleating “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in a fluttering falsetto in the late 1960s. Once heard, the song is hard to delete. Therein lies the tragedy.
Inordinately better, we cleave to what is regarded the most popular song on the ukulele, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” as performed by late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. He was a massive man, with a massive heart and a massive talent. Though his doughy arms swallowed the instrument, his touch on the strings was caressing, the lilt in his high, quavering voice heartrending. Listen to his take on the “Wizard of Oz” classic here. It will destroy you.
Back to yuk-uleles — er, ukuleles. These lute-like things are a Hawaiian adaptation of an instrument from the Portuguese Azores called a machete, which gained wide popularity in the U.S. and spread internationally.
And then spread to my niece, a precocious green-haired gamine. This could be wonderful (Hawaii!), or calamitous (instant boredom, or worse, Tiny Tim). My niece and I share a heritage that goes back to the Portuguese Azores, so there is hope for her aptitude. She is a dexterous creature. She might be a born ukulelean. And the tiny guitar (lute!) that I’m getting her comes with a tuner and beginner’s songbook, plus a case. Extra promising: many of her friends play the Lilliputian lyre (lute!).
Yet I can’t help shake the instrument as somehow clownish, witnessed in circuses, bad stand-up and “Gilligan’s Island.” Perhaps I’m wrong. Just a few celebs who played or at least dabbled with the ukulele: Elvis, Marlon Brando, Adam Sandler, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Greta Garbo, Steve Martin, Taylor Swift, Elvis Costello, Pink, Barack Obama, and on it goes.
So there’s hope. And dignity. Even if the instrument is a mere 21 inches long with only four strings, like a guitar left in the dryer too long. I expect mighty sounds from my niece. One of her favorite bands is Twenty One Pilots, which at times deploys this mini-lute. I’m not a fan of the band, but I’m a fan of her, and that gives me confidence that this ukulele experiment, this dip into plinky-dinky ditties, will sing.