Jim Beloff, The Ukulele: a Visual History (Backbeat Books, 2003)

Right off the bat let me tell you ... it's more fun to play the ukulele than to read this book. And it's easy enough for just about anybody to strum a tune within five minutes of sitting down with one of these little beauties in your hands. Last spring I traveled to Waikiki and in a half-hour intensive course on the street in front of the hotel, along with a group of 20 other tourists, we were taught a half dozen songs with a dozen chords. We had a ball. George Harrison kept ukuleles in every room in his house in case he got the urge to play. He gave his friends ukuleles. The little "dancing flea" is in the middle of a major comeback, and Jim Beloff has played a big part in it.

Together with his wife, Beloff owns Flea Market Music, Inc., a company devoted to the ukulele. They sell music books, instructional guides, and they even designed a new low cost, high quality ukulele that is recommended throughout Hawaii. I bought one while I was there. Beloff also is a player and has released CDs of original tunes. He wrote and compiled this delightful history of this instrument that causes anyone who sees it to smile.

The other day I was asked to sing a song to a gathering. I brought my "Flea" (the smaller of the two ukuleles Beloff offers) and they all laughed ... until they heard it! Then they realized it was a serious musical instrument. Okay, it has a thinner sound than a guitar, and it looks like a toy, but in the right hands the ukulele can be amazing. The Ukulele is just what it claims to be: A Visual History of this unique piece of musical equipment.

Beloff starts the book with a chapter called "The History..." which traces the development of the ukulele from the Portuguese 'machete' or 'braguinha' (which arrived in Hawaii on August 23rd, 1879) through its adoption as the instrument of choice by King David Kalakaua, its use from Tin Pan Alley to Arthur Godfrey. Every chapter, no, every page is richly illustrated with photos of ukuleles, players, historical shots of builders and champions of the instrument, and documents reflecting the worldwide acceptance the ukulele found. Beloff provides a list of movies in which the ukulele appeared, ads in which the ukulele featured, and art which utilizes the image of the "little dancing flea."

The second chapter contains brief biographies of important players: Ernest Kaai, Jesse Kalima, Eddie Kamae, Herb Ohta, Cliff Edwards and Tiny Tim (among others). Each artist's bio is illustrated with a portrait and pix of his/her instrument, and his/her records. Beloff includes a list of essential recordings to look for. Chapter three traces the history of ukulele manufacturing in Hawaii and on the mainland. From early $3 instruments made of koa wood to the plastic explosion of the 50s he looks at the major builders ... Nunes, Kamaka, Kumalae, Martin, Gibson, National, and Maccaferri ... they're all here.

The book concludes with a chapter called "The Story Continues..." which brings us right up-to-date. He looks at new players, new designers, new songbooks, and even a new breed of instrument. It's a fascinating story, told in Beloff's breezy prose. The pictures are wonderful. If I had a complaint it is that the book is too small for the wealth of material it holds. These old eyes had to strain to read some of the tiny fonts that are used to describe the photos. A slightly larger format would allow larger fonts and reduce that strain. But that's it, otherwise The Ukulele is perfect. Its retro design and binding showcase a true labour of love. The only thing better than reading Beloff's book ... is playing one of Beloff's ukuleles! Get yourself a Flea or a Flukulele and join the fun.

[David Kidney]

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