Mighty Uke / The ‘ukulele, which loosely translates to “jumping flea” in Hawaiian, was developed in 19th century Hawaii as a variation of the cavaquinho, a small, four-string guitar made popular by Portuguese immigrants. Since, the wooden lute has gone through many far-reaching reinterpretations, from securing a place in the ever-fickle world of indie-pop to landing in the final, tear-stained moments of the Emmy-nominated television show Glee, with Will Schuster’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” strummed on a Kamaka during the finale. In short, the instrument once popular solely among playground delinquents has finally gone viral.
Mighty Uke, a documentary screening this Saturday at Waimea Valley, explores the instrument’s sudden appeal. From a London pub to ‘ukulele festivals in Tokyo and New York, producers Tony Coleman and Margaret Meagher wax philosophical, deeply examining what was once seen as a disposable novelty. Despite their cosmopolitan excursions, the producers make sure to settle their cameras where it all began; under the breezy shade of a banyan tree in Hawaii, where two local teenagers jam out a complex arrangement of an 18th century classic. Their faces look calm, but their fingers, working with zestful brio, betray any notion of simplicity. Plucking four strings never looked or sounded so deliciously complex.