This year, I returned from my annual holiday trip to my hometown with a fun new toy - a ukulele. It’s a casual instrument that most people can learn the basics of in a day or two, and if you play guitar you could probably learn to play a song in minutes. I immediately got “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz under my belt and was left wondering what else I could do with my beautiful, tiny instrument.
I googled “ukulele music” and was not surprised to find a lot of Hawaiian, tropical sounding music. In other words, a lot of “cute” music. Cute can get real boring, real fast. I set out on a virtual quest to find people who are doing unique, musically deep, non-cute things with the ukulele. Hopefully some of my finds will inspire you to experiment with the ukulele, or any instrument, in a new way.
My first choice is “Powa” by tUnE-yArDs, the moniker for the eccentric Merrill Garbus. This lady isn’t looking for “cute.” In the New York Times she said, “I definitely made it my goal to make the ukulele sound not like the ukulele.” Perfect. The use of amplification and overdrive adds an edge that makes the instrument so much more interesting.
I’ve been a fan of Beirut for a long time now, so I had to include “Postcards From Italy,” written by frontman and ukulele player Zach Condon. The ukulele part itself is fairly simple, but there is a heaviness to it that drew me in. Combined with a full band arrangement in the style of Sufjan Stevens (including a trumpet) it sounds like pure nostalgia to me.
This next artist kind of blew me away at first listen. Based in Covington, Kentucky, experimental musician Umin uses the ukulele in a truly masterful and new way. His newest release, Altiv, is an instrumental album which layers the baritone ukulele with a vast array of digital sounds. Using sequencing, sampling, and looping he’s created a hypnotic experience.
Inge Chiles is the creative mind behind the group Ings. Yes, she’s a girl who plays ukulele and sings, but she’s definitely more than that. She’s got artistic vision. The addition of a full band (including dreamy electric guitars and reverb-drenched tambourine) to her doubled vocals and occasional tinkling of bells is a convincing argument for the use of the ukulele in indie alternative music.
This next find is the only video I’m including of someone using just a ukulele. Okay, he also uses a stick and a comb. James Hill is a classically trained Canadian musician who plays the ukulele like no one else. I don’t really know how he does what he does in this video, which makes it all the more fascinating. Let’s just say there’s a hip hop section and leave it at that.
Buke and Gase
Buke and Gase (formerly Buke and Gass) is a Brooklyn-based duo named after their homemade instruments. They both use one foot to play percussion and another to control effect pedals. Heavy polyrhythms and plenty of harmonic dissonance makes this baritone-uke based music the antithesis of cute, tropical, and happy-go-lucky.
Film composer Daniel Rojas scored the soundtrack to the short film “Restoring the Light,” about a Chinese eye doctor who sells his home to establish an independent mobile clinic for the underserved in rural China. In the track “Hair Wash” the ukulele is the centerpiece. Layered tracks create an ambient, but organic soundscape. Daniel used the ukulele percussively, banging and pitch-shifting to create a cajon-like sound.
My last choice is for the gamers and nerds out there. Jonathan Coulton composed the song “Still Alive” for the video game Portal. “Still Alive” is sung by a fictional artificial intelligence computer system who is narcissistic, passive-aggressive, sinister, and witty. Sarcasm + Artificial Intelligence + Ukulele. What could be better?
Kaela Sinclair is a 23 year old indie musician from Denton, TX. Sinclair’s debut LP, Sun & Mirror, was called “...one of the best albums to emerge from the DFW area thus far in 2013” by DFW.com and is available for purchase now on iTunes under “New and Noteworthy.” It features producer and drummer McKenzie Smith (Midlake, Regina Spektor, St. Vincent) and names like Buffi Jacobs (Polyphonic Spree) and Daniel Hart (Broken Social Scene, St. Vincent, Dark Rooms). For music, tour dates, videos, and more visit www.facebook.com/kaelasinclairmusic, www.kaelasinclair.com, www.twitter.com/kaelasinclair