I’ve been looking forward to getting my hands on The ‘Ukulele: A History by Jim Tranquada and John King for a long time. John King’s Nalu Music has always been the most authoritative site on the subject.
When John died in 2009 it did look like it might not be finished. But Jim continued work on it and – spoiler alert – he did a fantastic job. He was also kind enough to send me a copy to review.
What You Get
An in depth and detailed history of the ukulele.
The book is 282 pages long but the main section (excluding appendixes, notes etc.) is 161 pages. There are plenty of black a white photos.
You can get a good sense of the book by reading A Strum through ‘Ukulele History on Nalu Music written by Jim and John.
The Good Stuff
Context – Finally!
Here’s how most ‘histories’ of the ukulele go: “This happened. Then this happend. Then this happened. Tiny Tim. Then this happened. The end.”
There’s never any historical, cultural or political context. They left a whole lot of questions unanswered. Like ‘why the hell did a bunch of Madeiran cabinet makers sail to Hawaii to become indentured servants?’ and ‘how did the ukulele go from being an instrument made by and for non-Hawaiians to being a central symbol of Hawaiian culture?’.
The book is great on this stuff.
Because the book doesn’t ignore everything that’s going on around the ukulele and its development, it sparks new thoughts and ideas all the time. It really gives you a sense of how much the ukulele, music and culture are a product of influences like geography, politics, the weather, economics, agriculture, religion and any number of factors. It also made me think deeper about whether it’s racist to play the ukulele, and the long history of women playing the uke.
It’s not packed with photos like Jim Beloff’s The Ukulele: A Visual History but the pictures they use are fascinating and unexpected. Like that of John Phillip Sousa hanging out with a Hawaiian ukulele band in 1901.
There’s no blind repeating of second-hand knowledge here. Everything is meticulously researched and extensively footnoted. The notes are about half the size of the book itself (the main book is 153 pages and the notes are 74 pages long).
The Not So Good Stuff
There is more detail here than a casual reader is going to need. Which makes it hard going sometimes. I found myself getting bogged down in a few sections. So I did some judicious skipping safe in the knowledge I’m definitely going to go back and pick out stuff from it in future.
If you care about the history of the ukulele you have to buy it. It’s the definitive book on the subject. There’s no other book that comes close to it.