Not just a little guitar

Gemma Gracewood and her ukulele.
Gemma Gracewood and her ukulele.

A new television programme shows how the ukulele is losing its underdog status, writes Julie Jacobson. 

No one can quite remember when the ukulele became hip again, but if David Bowie reckons the little guitar that could is immortal, then who are we to argue?

OK, it wasn't the instrument Bowie was describing, but Britain's Ukulele Orchestra. Still, where there's a ukulele there does seem to be some sort of everlasting curiosity, and its resurgence is explored in this week's Artsville, screening on TV One on Sunday.

Presented by Wellington's Gemma Gracewood (a producer, broadcaster, writer, musician, and sometime member of the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra) and produced by Colin Hogg and Gayle Hogan, the documentary takes its title from the legendary Polynesian dance band leader and steel guitar master, Bill Sevesi, whose "dream" is to have school kids all over the country playing ukuleles.

Tracing how the instrument found its way from Madeira to Hawaii, through the Pacific and out to the rest of the world, it features archival material from the early 1900s (the landmark Panama-Pacific Expo in San Francisco when Hawaii hosted a hugely popular pavilion), through to the present, with performances by all manner of musicians including the Big Muffin Serious Band, Herman Pi'ikea Clark, The Nukes (Aucklanders David Thiele, Ben Collier and Dave Parker) and Cook Island dance combo Fia Musa, who dedicate one of their songs to Jonah Lomu. Actress Jennifer Ward- Lealand, who was given her first ukulele by her uncle when she was growing up in Wellington's Aro Street, also features.

Gracewood, who is currently living in New York, says Sevesi's dream came from an idea formed after he heard children singing his 1958 hit Bye Bye Baby Goodbye and "thought it would be amazing if they could play it as well as sing it. The ukulele seemed to him to be the perfect instrument."

Slowly gaining traction - with the help of Ukulele Festival organiser Kevin Fogerty and Mike Chunn's Play It Strange Trust, which has put 2800 of the instruments into schools over the last four years - Sevesi hopes the initiative will be a gateway to Kiwi kids learning other instruments.

Says Gracewood: "A documentary on the ukulele's place in New Zealand was unavoidable given the little instrument's skyrocketing popularity. It shows that the ukulele, as much as it is a Hawaiian instrument, has a unique story in Aotearoa New Zealand. It's made and played in such different ways throughout the Pacific and in New Zealand we have our own distinct style.

"Why is it popular in New Zealand? There are so many reasons: it's easy to play, it's cheap, portable, disarming, charming and makes people smile.

"And it's long had a place in New Zealand music - it even features on New Zealand's first 'official' pop single, Blue Smoke."

The film finishes with 87-year-old Sevesi (he first performed with country singer Tex Morton in 1949 and has since played with Dave Dobbyn and the Finn brothers) and his 68-year-old one-time pupil Sione Aleki playing their ukes together one last time. Aleki - a virtuoso sometimes billed as the Jimi Hendrix of the ukulele - died performing on stage, at home in Tonga, only a few weeks after shooting wrapped.

Artsville: Bill Sevesi's Dream. Where: TV One. When: Sunday, 10.40pm


While there is some disagreement over who invented the ukulele, it is generally accepted that the first one was probably made by Portuguese craftsmen in Hawaii working the cane fields, sometime in the early 1800s. The Portuguese had a similar four-stringed instrument they called the braguinha.

Famous ukulele players include George Formby, Tiny Tim, George Harrison, and more recently Anne Murray, Warren Buffet, Jack Black, William H Macy. Emily Blunt, Bret McKenzie and Sam Scott.

In 2008 a 5K Martin ukulele was valued at US$10,000-$12,000 on Antiques Roadshow.

A group of fans has set up a website dedicated to Beatles songs reworked for the ukulele. A new song is uploaded each Tuesday.

Ukulele snobs are sometimes disparagingly known as ukenoscenti.

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, (founded in 1985) and who toured here last month, have appeared on television with Jools Holland, and made a guest appearance on British teen drama Skins, playing Spandau Ballet's True.

The Dominion Post