Join The Club: Ukulele Cruises


The Key of the Sea–On a ukulele cruise, everybody comes out to play..

By Clark Norton

Susan McCormick, a music teacher from Cypress, California, remembers when song books for her favorite stringed instrument, the ukulele, were as rare as hailstorms in Honolulu. “When I first started playing it back in the 1970s, the only ukulele book I could find was from 1930,” she recalls. “Now just about any type of music in the world is available for ukes, and you can go on YouTube and watch ukulele renditions of the Beatles, flamenco, rock and roll — way beyond hula.”

After decades of being stashed away in dusty attic corners, ukuleles are becoming cool again, with devotees strumming anew, loud and proud. A four-stringed “mini-guitar” that originated in Hawaii in the 1880s, the ukulele made a leap to the United States mainland around 1915, when it became a fixture of the Jazz Age and later a popular prop in the post–World War II romance with the South Pacific — before fading into near oblivion after the 1950s. Sure, old uke jokes still float around the Internet (“What do you call perfect pitch? When you toss a ukulele into the trash can without hitting the rim”; “What’s the difference between an onion and a ukulele? Nobody cries when you cut up a ukulele”). And baby boomers may cringe at the memory of the throwback ’60s singer Tiny Tim, who plucked his ukulele while crooning “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in falsetto. But the new face of the ukulele is more like Jake Shimabukuro, a young Hawaiian whose virtuoso rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” has snagged more than 8 million hits on YouTube.

            McCormick traces the roots of the ukulele’s current renaissance back to the 1990s, crediting its affordability (“They cost as little as $40,” she points out), its ease of play (“You can pick up the basics quickly”), and its portability (“They’re much easier to travel with than guitars, and you can fit them in the overhead compartment on a plane”). Others have attributed some of the uke’s renewed popularity to its association with the islands and tropical vacations. With all that going for the “jumping flea” — “ukulele” translated from Hawaiian — it was almost inevitable that ukulele theme cruises would ride the wave. And McCormick, who used to organize annual ukulele festivals in Southern California, was just the person to lead them.

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