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Fans Say the Ukulele Is a Honolulu of a Jazz Instrument

  • Heidi Chang

Strum a ukulele, and almost everyone thinks immediately of Hawaii. But the world is starting to hear a very different sound from the traditional island instrument.

For decades, Roy Sakuma has been one of the musicians who¹s been trying to show that the ukulele can be more than background music or an accompaniment for hula. It can also be used to play jazz, pop, rock, standards and classical music. Still, the four-stringed instrument is most often associated with Hawaiian culture and hula, a connection that goes back more than century. "The ukulele turned out to be the perfect instrument," Mr. Sakuma explains, "because of the way that you strum it, the way that it brings across the feelings to enhance the emotions in dancing the hula." He got hooked on the ukulele as a child in Hawaii, and he now teaches others how to play it.

But the instrument so closely associated with America's Pacific paradise had its origin half a world away, along the shores of a different ocean. 125 years ago, Portuguese immigrants brought to Hawaii the forerunner of the ukulele, known as the machete -- pronounced "mah-SHET." It was soon given a new name. "Ukulele means, as many people in Hawaii know, jumping flea," says Jim Beloff, author of The Ukulele, A Visual History. "One of the interpretations is that when the Hawaiians first saw some of the players of this machete, they saw their fingers jumping up and down on the fret board, and they thought that it looked a little bit like jumping fleas."

Fingers have jumped across the ukulele in many styles since then…perhaps none more surprising than jazz. Lyle Ritz is known as "The Father of Jazz Ukulele." The Los Angeles-based artist introduced the style with a groundbreaking album in 1958, titled How About Uke? Music promoter Jim Beloff says it had a profound impact, especially in Hawaii. "That record kind of inspired a whole generation of players to think outside of the box," he says, "[to] think of the instrument as more than just an accompaniment instrument, but one that could tackle sophisticated jazz arrangements."

One of those players was Roy Sakuma, who remembers being captivated by the new sound. "All of us young kids who were playing the ukulele, we'd buy that record," he says, "and we would sit by the phonograph, play it over and over, and we would all try to learn 'Lulu's Back In Town.' We used to play just C, F, G7 back then. Then all of a sudden here comes Lyle with all these fantastic chord harmonies that just, you know, took music to a whole new level on the ukulele!"

The man behind the new sound, Lyle Ritz, says he had no idea his album would catch the ear of so many folks in Hawaii. But he admits it did not take much for the instrument to catch his ear as a young man working in a music store. He still recalls the day a customer came in and asked to see a tenor ukulele. "It was really expensive, he says. "They cost $20!" He laughs at how times have changed. "I pulled one from the cabinet and, wow, I couldn't believe the wonderful sound and the way it felt. It was just love. It was just the right thing for me to play."

Lyle Ritz never made a living performing on the ukulele. Instead, he made a name for himself in Hollywood as a studio bass player, backing up artists like the Beach Boys and the Righteous Brothers on such pop hits as "Good Vibrations" and "You've Lost that Lovin' Feelin'." Now retired, Mr. Ritz is finally the featured performer, in demand for ukulele concerts and workshops, where he demonstrates the finer points of coaxing music from the tiny soundbox.

As an innovative new generation of players performs around the world, and as far-flung ukulele fans connect over the Internet, appreciation for the instrument and its versatility is growing. And, after nearly a half century, that revolutionary album How About Uke? is being reissued on CD. Lyle Ritz is surprised and pleased. "Verve [record label] decided," he says, "in view of the resurgence in the interest of the uke all over the world, that they'd bring this record back into the market." Lyle Ritz calls that wonderful.