The Jumping Flea:
Tales of the Modern Ukulele

directed by Paul Kraus
(North Pacific, 2005)

Here's a film that attempts to put all the recent fuss about the ukulele into historical and contemporary context.

Of course, it's possible you didn't know there's been any fuss about the ukulele? Perhaps the uke has managed to fly totally beneath your radar since the days of Tiny Tim (if you even recall him and "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," his mega-hit of the late '60s).

But the fact is, the ukulele is making a bit of a comeback -- although not a huge splash (yet). The diminutive four-string chordaphone is finally beginning to emerge from the long, lugubrious shadow of the aforementioned Mr. Tim, whose irritating falsetto voice and unusual persona left many with a bad feeling about the uke.

Nothing personal against Tiny. He found a way to get major airplay in the very competitive entertainment world. And he drew attention to some interesting Tin Pan Alley tunes, as well as to the ukulele itself. But he was so successful he managed to relegate the poor uke for decades to the realm of novelty instrument -- a toy.

It's not fair, I tells ya. The uke is similar in size and tonal quality to a mandolin (similar, I said, not the same; all you mandolin freaks keep your pants on), and nobody considers the mandolin a toy. What about the harmonica or tin whistle -- both well respected instruments, even though littler and more limited than the uke.

So how about some respect for the ukulele?

Fortunately, the '60s -- and the memory of Tiny Tim -- seem finally to have faded enough that all the cool kids (well, some of them) are beginning to reconsider the ukulele. Names like Victoria Vox, Gulag Orkestar and the Be Good Tanyas come to mind, as do Jack Johnson, Folk Uke (Cathy Guthrie and Amy Nelson, daughters of Arlo and Willie), and Taj Mahal. Okay, Taj is no kid, but he's seriously cool.

And now comes the documentary film, The Jumping Flea: Tales of the Modern Ukulele. This doc is a lot like the uke itself -- unassuming and low-key, but fun. It tells the story of the instrument's development -- and various periods of popularity and decline -- in a straightforward, undramatic narrative punctuated by lots of performance clips.

Filmmaker Paul Kraus kicks off with the 1879 arrival in Hawaii of the ukulele's Portuguese ancestor, the machete de braga, or braguinha, most often simply called the machete.

Legend has it that when the British ship Ravenscrag reached Hawaii after a long, stormy voyage carrying emigrants from the Portuguese island of Madeira, one of the passengers leapt down onto the dock, overjoyed to be back on terra firma, and started strumming a fast Madeiran folksong on his machete. A fascinated Hawaiian onlooker exclaimed the player's fingers looked like fleas jumping on the fretboard, and the name ukulele (Hawaiian for "jumping flea") was born.

And in Hawaii, it's pronounced oo-koo-lay-lay, not you-ka-lay-lee, as we "haoles" (white folks) say it.

Quickly adapted from the machete, the uke soon became integral to Hawaiian musical culture. And while it specialized in expressing joy and fun, it was always accepted there as a serious musical instrument, adaptable to many musical styles and sentiments.

When ukes hit the U.S. mainland bigtime in 1915 at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, they took the country by storm. Tin Pan Alley jumped on the bandwagon with a blizzard of novelty songs like "Hello Aloha, How Are You," "Waikiki Ukulele Girl" and "Yaaka Hula Dickey Dula." Hundreds of thousands of ukes were sold, not to mention loads and loads of sheet music.

Through interviews with Jim Beloff, whose website,, has become a gathering place and trading post for uke enthusiasts around the world, Kraus goes on to chronicle the second wave of ukulele popularity (launched in the 1950s by television personality Arthur Godfrey, impetus behind the development of the baritone ukulele), the uke's place in surfing culture, the blip of Tiny Tim and this current "third wave" of popularity.

The film also focuses extensively on the work of modern luthiers specializing in the ukulele, with interviews with people like Tony Graziano, Steve Evans of Beltona resonator ukes, ukulele artist Duane Heilman and "scientific luthiers" John Kitakis and Brian Burns.

Best of all, there are lots of performance clips (although they're short ones, unfortunately) by the likes of Bill Tapia, a Hawaiian jazz ukulele legend still going strong in his 100th year; Lyle Ritz, an A-list session bassist who can be heard on '60s mainstream recordings by the Beach Boys, Righteous Brothers and Sonny & Cher -- but whose first love is jazz uke; Canadian virtuoso James Hill, who showcases the uke's ability to handle anything from classical to bluegrass to Hendrix; Janet Klein, who recreates the "flapper" era of the 1920s with her Parlor Boys (including Ian Whitcomb on ukulele); Vancouver-based, bowler-hatted, George Formby-revivalist Ralph Shaw; and Hawaiian-style songstress Michelle Kiba.

As you'll see in this film, there's still a strong love for the anachronistic and old-fashioned among uke enthusiasts -- as long as it's fun. As Steve Evans tells the camera, "ukes are an anti-statement" compared to the guitar.

But Kraus makes a strong case that the music produced by these interesting people on their ukuleles -- whether foolish, tender or rollicking -- goes a long way towards making the world a better place.

Or, as I like to think, as long as somewhere in the world there are people playing ukuleles, we still have hope.

by John Bird
10 February 2007

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