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China Daily Global / 2020-06 / 30 / Page015

Cheap and cheerful, give me an earful of those ukulele songs

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-06-30 00:00

A plucky little lute is indeed making a big comeback in the West and is flooding into China during its "third wave".

The humble ukulele has risen in esteem to the point it plays second fiddle perhaps only to the guitar, among strummed instruments.

In a scene so cliched that it'd be corny writing if it were a movie, I first encountered the ukulele in the land of its origin, Hawaii.

It's worth noting one name for the instrument in Chinese is xiaweiyi jita, or Hawaii guitar.

I saw one at a cheesy souvenir stand in a Hawaiian culture park and presumed it was a decoration or shoddy.

To my shock, it not only worked, but the second I picked it up, I instantly wrote a three-part song without a single sour note.

And even in a tourist trap in Hawaii, it was only $40!

I love lutes.

I started with a guitar around the age of 14 and since coming to China have purchased three ruan (four-stringed Chinese lutes with a round sound box), a sanxian (a three-stringed lute with a snakeskin sound box) and a mandolin.

The ethnic Uyghur dutar, a long-necked, two-stringed lute, currently tops my wish list of Chinese instruments.

I've tried other Chinese instruments, such as the erhu (a two-stringed fiddle) and guqin (zither) but found them too tricky to master quickly.

Still, I find I pick up my uke most frequently.

I once performed the Chinese folk song, The Moon Represents My Heart, for an auditorium. I later recorded a ukulele song in which I used Spring Festival fireworks for percussion.

After I had children, I'd compose lullabies to play for them at bedtime.

But today, my 8-year-old is writing her own songs on the ukulele I recently bought her and am teaching her how to play.

Only after we got hers did we learn two of her best friends, local girls, also have ukuleles.

"I sell more of them now than anything else, even guitars," the shopkeeper we bought the new model from told me.

Ukuleles are perhaps the most common instruments in his and neighboring stores on Beijing's Xinjiekou musical-instrument district.

"Maybe more people still like guitar. But a good guitar costs thousands of yuan. A good ukulele costs several hundred."

They're also easier to learn and portable.

Indeed, while many people may view the uke as a "little guitar", there's little resemblance beyond the shape and the fact they're both lutes.

There has been a movement in some Western countries' schools to replace the recorder, a simple flute virtually every American my age grew up with, with ukuleles in music classes in recent years.

And they're being used increasingly in Chinese schools, too, domestic media report.

Many enthusiasts credit the "third wave", which began about a decade ago, to the internet.

Musician James Hill, arguably the most famous player, gets millions of views on such videos as James Hill Playing Ukulele With Chopsticks. The video, in which he uses chopsticks and a comb on a uke to create techno music that truly sounds like it's instead created by a synthesizer, has 3 million views on YouTube.

The enthusiasts point out the previous waves in the United States accompanied new communications technologies.

The first began around the time radios began entering people's homes, and the second started as TVs became commonplace.

I'm delighted the third wave has washed over China amid globalization.

It's not a fad but rather a trend I've watched progress over a decade or so.

And it's one that sounds good to me, in every sense.

Erik Nilsson

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