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Wednesday February 4, 2004

The Ukulele ... Is It Cool?

Now available in both original and electronic forms, it seems the ukulele is experiencing a renaissance. Listen to Mark Coles' report.

The tiny 4-string guitar-like instrument started life in Honolulu back in 1879 and somehow ended up being championed by music hall, Bing Crosby and even played by ex-Beatle George Harrison.

You'd be forgiven for thinking the instrument is a quirky blip in musical history now consigned to museums and specialist clubs. But it seems the ukulele is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance.

The seven-strong Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain is not only going to playing at the Barbican shortly, the concert is already sold out.

"There's definitely a proliferation of things happening now with the ukulele," insists orchestra member Hester Goodman. "Maybe it appeals to the post modern element."

She told Mark Coles that there’s simply nothing you can’t do with the instrument. “You can do punk, funk, we do kind of folky covers, we stop at nothing. We do have an album of punk classics, called 'Anarchy and the Ukulele’.”

If you’ve ever wondered how to tell apart music that’s simply average from those tunes that will stand the test of time, being played by many generations in the future, the answer (according to Hester Goodman) is simple.

"It has been said ... that the ukulele is a sort of bull s**t detector, in that it will find out whether a tune is worth its salt or not. If you can play it on the ukulele then it's a good tune."

In the United States there are two big ukulele festivals planned for later this year.

Sue Abbotson from the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum in Rhode Island says the demand amongst young people for ukuleles is unprecedented.

"A few of the makers have actually started to bring out electrified ukuleles ... they can get them in all sorts of different colours and designs to match their favourite mood or outfit. They've been selling a lot."

And it's not just America that seems to have caught the ukulele bug. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain recently toured Japan, to an extraordinary reception.

"We'd have crash barriers around the stage and lots of surging Japanese ukulele fans," Hester Goodman recalls. "Lots of them came up afterwards with special pens so that we could sign the backs of their ukuleles."

The orchestra intend to return to Japan soon to promote their latest album, which takes on even more genres than before, including rap music and R&B.

Click here to hear the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain perform, as part of Mark Coles’ report.

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