The ukulele is surging in popularity across the island
The ukulele is experiencing a new heyday in America, around the world and in Galveston.
In the past few years, hundreds of Galvestonians have tuned into the pleasant, relatively easy experience of plinking, strumming and chunk-a-chunking on a ukulele in classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and Galveston College, through private instruction or teaching themselves with online videos.
There’s officially a Galveston Ukulele Society that meets twice a month and plays at events around town, and even a female duo, The Ukuladies, known at local bars.
It’s fitting for a city on an island. The ukulele — correctly pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay — has long been associated with island sounds, ever since the first one washed up on Hawaiian shores in 1879.
Originally from Europe, the four-string miniature guitar-shaped instrument was brought to the islands by a Portuguese sailor and quickly caught on. King Kalˉakaua is reported to have learned to play. By 1900, Hawaiians made the ukulele popular across the Pacific region, and by 1920, the average American family could buy one from the Sears, Roebuck catalog for $2.
Ukuleles infiltrated the music publishing, recording and film industries during the rise of Tin Pan Alley, a collection of New York City music publishers and songwriters who dominated the popular music in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The instrument maintained popularity all the way through the Great Depression — ukuleles were affordable — to a pinnacle in the 1950s to early 1960s with Arthur Godfrey strumming on TV in a Hawaiian shirt, crooner Bing Crosby plucking one and even Elvis Presley playing a ukulele in his hit film “Blue Hawaii.”
“It’s only about 140 years old, a relatively young instrument,” said Robert Krout, a ukulele instructor in Galveston. “It’s gone through cycles of popularity over time, and now rock bands record with ukuleles.”
Pearl Jam front-man Eddie Vedder surprised the music world in 2015 with his Grammy-winning album of ukulele tunes, and in 2016, millions of viewers celebrated the TV show “America’s Got Talent” victory of 12-year-old singer-songwriter-strummer Grace Vanderwaal, who accompanied herself on ukulele.
“I’d say it’s one of the most popular instruments on the planet,” Krout said, citing ukulele festivals around the world. “It’s such a popular instrument because it’s easy to play and it’s versatile.”
Krout teaches students from age 6 to people in their 90s, many of them attempting to play a musical instrument for the first time in their lives.
Joanie Gill, executive director of the Galveston Symphony Orchestra, is one of Krout’s students. And though she manages two symphonies, Galveston’s and the Minnesota Sinfonia, Gill never had formal musical training before picking up the ukulele, she said.
“I took my very first class from Robert in February,” Gill said.
Now she plays with the ukulele society every chance she gets and continues honing her skills. She spends her days at a laptop computer for the most part, but stops for ukulele breaks, she said.
Gill owns three ukuleles — a soprano, the smallest; a tenor that’s more like a small guitar; and an eight-string ukulele, inspired by a performance Gill saw by the Ukuladies.
“I saw them at Prohibition Red’s at their anniversary show,” Gill said. “One of them was playing an eight-string. I bought one and I love it.”
Krout taught Gill and teaches others to sing along as they play, a skill she found difficult at first, then realized the exercise for her brain, as well as her fingers, was stimulating, she said.
“I was having to use my left hand to deal with chords, my right hand to keep rhythm and singing on top of that, using all kinds of muscle memory,” Gill said.
Krout teaches singing along because ukulele songs, for the most part, aren’t recognizable until words and melody are added, he said.
“Also, many of the songs we play are tunes people like,” he said. “‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips,’ Beatles songs, contemporary songs, ukulele-adapted classics like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ‘Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World’ medley are examples.
“When they can play and sing it, it’s just so much more meaningful.”
Krout’s experience as an academic — he moved to Galveston after retiring from Southern Methodist University as a full-time music therapy professor — inevitably kicks in, he said.
“The way music is processed by the brain and the ways you’re using your brain when playing is really astounding,” he said. “The music therapist part of me comes in when I’m looking at the value of playing an instrument in people’s lives.”
Locals can catch ukulele concerts by members of the society throughout the year. The group has played at the Libbie’s Place Beach Bash fundraiser, the East End Historical Society’s Fourth of July celebration, at Christmas events for The Salvation Army, at World Oceans Day and other community events, and invitations to play keep coming, Krout said. Students at Osher Lifelong Learning Institute classes learn and play at four different levels, and their annual recital is open to the public.