Tales of the Magic Uke: The Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival celebrates the four-string wonder
The Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival celebrates the four-string wonder The Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival celebrates the four-string wonder
by Mark McDermott
Nobody knew how the instrument ended up on the top shelf of a bookcase at the Beloff family’s summer home in Connecticut. In fact, until that day in 1991 when his father-in-law happened to pull the ukulele down off the shelf, Jim Beloff had never paid any attention to it.
“To this day, I’m not sure why it was there, or who brought it,” Beloff said. “It’s kind of one of those odd things that no one in my family can quite explain.”
As his father-in-law tuned the instrument and launched into a few golden oldies from 1920s Tin Pan Alley, Beloff could not have fathomed the string of events about to unfold, as if emanating like a spell from the mysterious ukulele’s four strings. Jim and his wife Liz were about to set out upon a journey that would include publishing a series of ukulele songbooks (including the bestselling Daily Ukulele series) that would attract a million players, putting ukuleles in their hands and happy songs in their hearts, and in so doing help launch a modern-day ukulele craze that shows no signs of abating. Along the way, the Beloffs would experience a homespun ukulele jam session with musical royalty, the Beatles’ George Harrison, and Jim — formerly a Billboard magazine sales executive and avid guitar player — would find himself performing and teaching at the many uke festivals that would spring up across the nation. Even more unexpectedly, Beloff would end up writing ukulele concertos and performing them with professional orchestras in several cities.
But it all began with a song. Along with a few other old standards Beloff’s father-in-law plucked out of the old ukulele, he played “Toot Toot Tootsie, Goodbye,” an old Al Jolson tune composed in 1927. Beloff was touched by the delicate beauty and resolute sound of an instrument that neither he nor most people at that time gave much regard.
“I had, like perhaps a lot of people, a prejudice against the instrument, thinking it was so small and had only four strings that it couldn’t possibly sound all that great,” Beloff said. “I thought of it as a very simple instrument, and even though he wasn’t a professional player, my father-in-law was getting so much sound out of it, and the songs he was playing sounded so rich and full to me. There was more to this instrument than I ever thought.”
Beloff made a mental note that if he ever ran across a good ukulele he’d buy it. Later that year, he was transferred to the Billboard office in Los Angeles. He and his wife are flea market enthusiasts, and so it didn’t take long for them to find their way to the famous monthly Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena.
“And lo and behold, there was an old Martin tenor ukulele,” Beloff recalled.
He paid $250 for the vintage instrument, and when he took it home, he knew immediately his musical life had changed.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that within 24 hours of bringing it home I’d fallen in love with the instrument,” Beloff said. “So that was kind of the beginning of going down this ukulele rabbit hole we have, at this point, never left.”
Beloff, who will perform and teach as part of the Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival on Sept. 28 at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, was among the first to go down that rabbit hole. But he would soon be followed by millions in what would become a worldwide ukulele resurgence, a phenomenon epitomized by the festival, which for the last five years has attracted more than a thousand people to come and strum and sing songs together while also learning from and watching ukulele masters perform.
Festival organizer Mitch Chang, who has been the producer of dozens of festivals ranging from Hawaiian slack key to flamenco and the Los Angeles International Guitar Festival, said that nothing quite compares to a ukulele gathering. Music festivals are wildly various in their types of music, venues, and organization, but like the modern music industry itself they follow one predictable formula: performers play, the audience listens. Ukulele festivals are different. There is indeed a stage, and there are high-level professional performers, but the audience isn’t just sitting there, or even just dancing: as evidenced at the five previous LA International Ukulele Festivals, nearly every one of the 1,000 to 1,500 people who come brings an instrument, and everyone plays along. The audience is a sea of ukuleles and smiles.
“This is the only festival I produce that is designed for 100 percent audience participation,” Chang said. “Ukulele people love strumming along in groups. I mean, they really freaking love it. They think they have arrived. It’s a beautiful thing; they can strum along for hours and hours, people laughing, singing, carrying on. It’s really cool. I can’t imagine a guitar festival ever engaging people quite like that. Probably because people take themselves so much more seriously with guitars, and because the instrument is so much larger. You couldn’t have an audience full of guitars.”
And that is part of the magic of the ukulele, something that Beloff encapsulated with a song written as the theme for the Cerritos Ukulele Festival several years back. The song was titled “Can’t Help But Smile.”
“It’s true. Ukuleles make people smile,” said Chang, a flamenco and slack key guitarist who also plays and teaches ukulele. “How come when you walk around with a guitar nobody laughs at you? I guess it’s because the ukulele inspires people to really delve into the depths of their own quirkiness. Suddenly they are singing cowboy songs or Black Sabbath on the ukulele, going, ‘How weird is that?’”
The popularity of the ukulele has been surging for two decades now; in the last decade alone, ukulele sales in the U.S. have gone from 501,000 instruments sold in 2009 to over 1.8 million last year, according to the National Association of Music Merchants.
Though the instrument is most closely associated with Hawaii, the ukulele actually comes from another volcanic island chain, Madeira, a small archipelago off the coast of Portugal. There, the instrument, invented in 1850 was known as the machête. After a series of famines and natural disasters ravaged Madeira in the next few decades, men from there were forced to emigrate to find work 12,000 miles away; so many native Hawaiians had died due to the arrival of European viruses that there were not enough workers for its booming sugar industry. So in 1879, a group of Madeiran workers arrived in Hawaii aboard the 220-foot-long British clipper ship SS Ravenscrag. An accomplished musician aboard named Joao Fernandez grabbed a machête from a fellow passenger and sang a celebratory song in the Oahu harbor. The instrument was an immediate sensation. Three weeks later, the Hawaiin Gazette reported, “…Madeira Islanders recently arrived here have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts. The musicians are fine performers on their strange instruments, which are a kind of a cross between a guitar and a banjo, but which produce very sweet music in the hands of the Portuguese minstrels.”
Three of the newly arrived Madeirans happened to be woodworkers, and within a year they’d set up shop, and were producing the instrument, which Hawaiians renamed the ukulele, meaning “jumping flea” in English.
The first wave of the ukulele’s mainland popularity began with the Great Ukulele Craze of 1915, which happened at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco — an event intended to mark the completion of the Panama Canal and the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake but ended up being remembered mainly in history for the arrival of the uke. As many as 37,000 visitors a day visited the Hawaiian Pavillion, where hula dancers performed and the Kailimai Hawaiian Quintet played songs like “On the Beach at Waikiki.” The craze, which included all things Hawaiian, went national. By the 1920s Sears Roebuck was selling ukes for $2 each in its mail-order catalogs and Tin Pan Alley songwriters wrote dozens of Hawaiian-themed songs. The ukulele’s charmed life even somehow benefited when the Great Depression hit, and its low price point compared to other popular instruments, such as piano and accordion, gave it a boost in sales.
The second wave of ukulele popularity occurred in the 1950s, spurred by the arrival of television in American living rooms and by popular variety show host Arthur Godfrey, who wore a Hawaiian shirt, gave ukulele lessons on air, and endorsed a plastic ukulele called the Islander (which sold for $5.95 each). By the end of the decade, 1.7 million Americans were ukulele players.
The demise of the ukulele came with the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll and the instrument which would subsequently define cool, the electric guitar. In an almost symbolic handing over of the baton, the night the Beatles electrified the nation with their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, on Feb. 9, 1964, the since-forgotten performer who preceded them was a ukulele player known as “Two Ton Tessie” O’Shea.
By the time Jim Beloff got hip to the uke in the early 1990s, hardly any were being made any longer. The ukulele seemed to have fallen into the dustbin of history. Even in Hawaii, the ukulele was no longer considered cool. Mitch Chang, who started playing ukulele as a little kid, remembers going to high school in Oahu in the 90s and being mocked for his uke.
“Dude, at the time I was going to high school in Hawaii, if I walked around with a uke, a lot of people would laugh at me,” Chang recalled. “It was like not cool.”
But around that time, a few Hawaiian musicians were reviving the instrument, including Peter Moon and Troy Fernandez (of the band The Ka’au Crater Boys). A little later, another Hawaiian, then-unknown uke virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, would make a YouTube video of himself performing the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” while sitting alone in Central Park that would become one of the first viral videos, with more than 20 million views. But nobody did more to re-popularize the ukulele than the 700-pound sweet-souled singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose delicate medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” became a smash hit and helped propel the uke back into the mainstream.
This happened just as Jim and Liz Beloff were launching their new business, called Flea Market Music. The Beloffs had hunted both for ukuleles and for ukulele songbooks and came to realize that few instruments were being made and no songbooks were in print. They’d managed to find a few dozen vintage songbooks and decided to compile a new one, called “Jumpin’ Jim’s Ukulele Favorites” that featured many of the standards from the songbooks they found.
Beloff’s intention was to get people playing music, by whatever means necessary. Though he was a big fan — and later a friend and collaborator — of the virtuoso jazz ukulele player Lyle Ritz (also known for his work as a bassist in the famed studio session group The Wrecking Crew) and appreciated the advanced musical possibilities of the instrument, Beloff saw its fundamental appeal as something anybody could play. The dawning of the music industry in the 20th Century had one unintended consequence: it created a nation of people who listened to music but did not play. For the first time in human history, there were people who could not sing a single song.
“Old houses had parlors,” Beloff said. “It was a name for a room that was often a place for entertainment, or high spirits. Often the parlor had a piano, and it was not uncommon for uncles and aunts and friends and family to got together and made music. Someone would have a banjo, someone a guitar, and everybody sang. That was the idea of a good time.”
Now homes had entertainment systems, and people sat and watched or listened, but did not participate in music. The third wave of the ukulele revolution brought songs back to people who didn’t consider themselves musicians, and Beloff’s series of “Jumpin’ Jim” books spurred the whole movement.
Beloff also helped spark his brother-in-law, Dale Webb, to start making ukuleles, a well-made but low-cost line that includes “The Fluke” and “The Flea.” In 1997, he also wrote the first complete history of the instrument, “The Ukulele: A Visual History.” The combination of these two enterprises resulted, in 1999, in an encounter with a legend.
The Beloffs were at a NAMM show, the music industry trade shows that take place in California yearly, in order to promote The Fluke (which Liz, who is also a uke player and singer, named). A luthier named Danny Ferrington approached their booth and when he realized who they were mentioned that his friend George Harrison was a big admirer of “The Ukulele: A Visual History” so much so that he’d gifted copies of it to many of his friends and family. He said that Harrison was in town and would probably love to see the Beloff’s ukulele collection.
“We exchanged information and forgot about it,” Beloff said. “Because in our mind, Beatles don’t come to your house. But three days later we got a phone call, and a little while later in walks Danny Ferrington, saying, ‘This is my good friend, George.’”
They ended up all spending an entire afternoon together playing ukuleles. The Beloffs were just about to publish another “Jumpin’ Jim” songbook, “Jumpin’ Jim’s ’60s Uke-In,” featuring songs from the 1960s, including a number of Beatles songs.
“Boy,” Beloff recalled telling George, “You have no idea how great Beatles songs sound on uke.”
“Suddenly, there we all are, George, Danny, and Liz and I, and we are all playing and singing, ‘All My Loving,’” Beloff said. “I just blinked in Morse Code to Liz, as if to say, ‘Freeze this moment on your retinas. It doesn’t get any better than this.’ When I tell the story in workshops, what I try to emphasize is that here is a guy who if he has a guitar in his hands, he has to become George Harrison, because that’s who he is and he’s a Beatle. But with a uke in his hands, he’s just one of us, just having the real honest joy of making music with others. It wasn’t about hot licks or anything else, just playing pretty chords and singing songs. That was the magic of the moment, and I don’t think it was lost on any of us who were there.”
Before he left, Harrison sat down at the Beloff’s kitchen table and wrote a note, on a piece of Flea Market Music stationery, to be included as an appreciation in their new songbook.
“Everybody should have and play a ‘UKE,’” Harrison wrote. “‘It’s so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh. It’s so sweet and also very old — some are made of wood — some are made of armadillo’s. I love them — the more the merrier — everyone I know who is into the ukulele is ‘crackers.’ So get yourself a few and enjoy yourselves!”
He signed the note George “Keoki” Harrison and drew a simple little drawing of a happy ukulele.
Next week: Bassist and u-bassist Bakithi Kumalo (from Paul Simon’s Graceland) and a visit to the Dietz Brothers’ ukulele den. The 2019 Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival takes place Sept. 28 at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center from 9:30 to 6 p.m. See LosAngelesUkuleleFestival.com for more information and tickets.