Ukelele Rising


By: Suzie Balabuch

What did you think of when you saw Ryan Gosling serenading Michelle Williams with a ukulele in the Blue Valentine trailer? Certainly not a beach somewhere in Hawaii, with girls in grass skirts dancing in the background.

The charming four-stringed instrument is poised to make a comeback, and be taken seriously this time around. The ukulele has made a recent resurgence into music and pop culture, rising like a cutesy phoenix from the ashes, charming the pants off many and converting non-musicians to seasoned pluckers and strummers.

Contemporary artists like Ingrid Michealson, Jason Mraz, Sara Bareilles, and Nellie McKay have all fallen in love with the conveniently sized instrument. Michaelson’s sublime uke rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep” has 85,000 hits on YouTube. Nellie McKay reworks old jazz standards like “If I Had You” into beautifully arranged uke pieces that obliterate the old stigmas that the ukulele has faced in the past.

The realization of this musical/pop culture phenomenon occurred to this writer after attending three concerts (not weird ones in a meadow, I swear), in which the ukulele played an important role.

Now, the ukulele phenomenon has touched down at U of T. Starting January 30, Hart House will be offering a class called “The Lover’s Ukulele”, taught by avid ukuleleist, teacher and ukulele instrument salesman Thomas Dean. The class is a 3-week journey ending on February 14 which aims to get participants to compose and play their own love song for their valentine.

the newspaper got the chance to speak with Dean, who thinks that the ukulele phenomenon can be explained in many ways. Firstly, the quality of the instrument has improved, lending the uke a richer sound. “One of the reasons is it’s now being manufactured in such a way that it is not a toy. That means it can actually be taking seriously,” says Dean.

Also, the ukulele has experienced a boost in popularity due to star power. Many celebrities, not normally music-affiliated, play the ukulele, and they play it well. Warren Buffett taught Bill Gates how to play, Steve Martin is an enthusiast, and Marylin Monroe and Lucille Ball were uke players as well.

Renowned musicians have been carrying on a secret love affair with the ukulele for years. For instance, all of the Beatles played the ukulele. George Harrison, or “the godfather of the ukulele resurgence”, as Dean calls him, would compose almost all of his songs on the uke and then write them for the guitar and other instruments.

Another reason for the popularity of this amazing instrument is that it is very versatile. The uke is not restricted to Hawaiian folk-songs only. It is possible to play any genre of music on the ukulele, be it classic rock or classic renaissance music.

The most fleeting reason of them all is that the ukulele simply seems to make people happy. Dean tells a story of a friend of his who “strummed her way out of depression.” Its friendly sound is undeniably soothing, even if hearing it for the first time. Dean says, “The ukulele brings a lot of stress relief. You just feel good playing the darn thing. You don’t even have to be very accomplished.” Ukuleists may be “fierce individualists” according to Dean, but they also have a very strong sense of community. As abundantly clear in the trailer for the documentary, The Mighty Uke, the ukulele brings people together from all over, like a “social sport.”

Toronto is lucky enough to possess its own ukulele collective, the Corktown Ukulele Jam, meeting every Wednesday. the newspaper spoke with performer and Corktown member Ukulele Gaga (aka. Victoria Dobbs, a U of T alum). “For two years its founders have worked non-stop to providing free weekly workshops, group jams, open mics, and more, and what’s developed is a community of people of all ages and skill levels working together to learn and play ukulele. Having the opportunity to become a part of that community has been above all my favourite part of this musical adventure!”

Like Ukulele Gaga, Dean has been part of a tightknit ukulele community for some time. He concludes, “For some reason, even though people like to play it on their own and make up sons, the cool thing about it, is that they love to be together. They’re learning from one another and sharing, and that makes people feel good.”

For more information on “The Lover’s Ukulele” at Hart House, visit

To find out more about the Corktown Ukulele Jam , visit

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