Twee is in, and perhaps there’s nothing more twee than a ukulele.
To older generations, the uke, with its island novelty and breezy timbre, is twee — affectedly quaint, silly-sweet. To younger folks, the four-string, two-octave instrument is not so twee. They associate it with the most viral of Internet fads.
Ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro returns to Spoleto for his second appearance June 1, and he is anything but a fad. His 2009 Spoleto debut captivated the sold-out crowd and eradicated any punchlines stemming from his instrument of choice.
“I’m really just blown away by it all,” Shimabukuro said of his immediate success. “I’ve been playing the ukulele my whole life, but this is the first time I’ve experienced something like this.”
A ukulele player since age 4, Shimabukuro first gained attention in the late 1990s with his trio, Pure Heart. As a solo artist, he experimented with distortion, effects pedals and frenzied fretwork to approximate his favorite rock and pop songs.
Shimabukuro often credits a YouTube video featuring his sizzling arrangement of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for his success. The video has received more than 10 million hits, and since it was posted, he has played with Jimmy Buffett, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Yo-Yo Ma.
His upcoming ukulele rock album is produced by Alan Parsons, the British audio engineer involved with The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon.” The 35-year-old also will be the subject of a new documentary, “Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings,” airing nationally on PBS stations next year.
Nate Chinen of The New York Times said of Shimabukuro: “Durability is the bane of novelty, and (he) has been nothing if not durable in recent years, steadily refining his craft.”
The ukulele first appeared in the hands of Portuguese cabinet makers who had traveled to Hawaii to work in the sugar cane fields in the 1880s. Originally called the machete, the tiny instrument quickly gained popularity among the native Hawaiians.
The uke was overshadowed by the guitar in 1950s but a new fascination began in the 1990s. The 2001 death of George Harrison (a uke aficionado) and Paul McCartney’s performance of “Something” on the ukulele at a tribute concert fueled the fervor.
The ukulele renaissance is reflected locally at Shem Creek Music Center in Mount Pleasant, home of perhaps the Lowcountry’s largest ukulele inventory. Manager Phil Thomas began stocking ukes seven years ago in response to more frequent inquiries.
“The motivation usually is to find an instrument that is easy to play and inexpensive,” said Thomas. “The uke is no longer viewed as a toy. It’s a real instrument.”
Shimabukuro believes the Internet has really helped to spread the uke’s appeal and encourages everyone to play what he calls “the instrument of peace.”
“If more people played it, there would be a lot of happy people walking around,” he said.
An emerging generation of serious ukulele players is taking this sentiment to heart. In the hands of musicians such as Shimabukuro, the ukulele will continue to evolve beyond twee and hula skirts.
Samara Napolitan is a Newhouse School graduate student.