The Plastic Fantasic

Photos © Josie Elias

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This summer’s holiday in Spain provided me with the perfect excuse to buy the new Makala Waterman ukulele. For those who haven’t yet met the “plastic fantastic” the Waterman is a plastic soprano sized ukulele modelled on Mario Maccaferri’s 1950 Islander ukulele. 

As I was planning on spending a good deal of time relaxing by the pool I thought a plastic ukulele would be ideal. As you can see from the pictures the Waterman has enabled me to practise while working on the sun tan.

Row, row, row your boat…. 

It also doubles as a good oar... 

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…and has attracted an interesting new student. Meet Weeping Willie…He certainly doesn’t seem to be feeling the love and peace spirit of the ukulele. Isn’t the ukulele meant to be the happiest instrument in the world? Read on to find out what is making Willie weep...

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When not playing or paddling my way around the pool (or trying to cheer up Weeping Willie) I have been reading about the history of the ukulele. The Ukulele: A History by Jim Tranquada and John King is a fascinating book for any ukulele enthusiast. While doing some searching on the internet I also found Dan Scanlan’s website, Cool Hand Luke. When Portuguese immigrants went from Madeira to Hawaii in 1879 they took their instruments with them. These instruments included the machete, or braguinha, and the rajão. Amongst these early immigrants were three gentleman who were cabinet makers and instrument makers - Manuel Nunes, Augusto Dias and Joao Fernandes. These three men would be the first makers of the ukulele. Here is a quote from Dan Scanlan’s Ukulele History which explains how the ukulele developed.

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"Ethnomusicologist Jaehnichen says Nunes realized Hawaiians needed an easy-to-play instrument to accompany their short, structured songs. The complicated sound of a typical Madeiran ensemble that included rajão and braguinha didn’t fit the musical styles of Hawaiian players. Nunes worked with Dias and Santos to develop a mini- rajão, something appropriate to Hawaiian music. They took the GCEA strings from the rajão and put them on the body of a braguinha. The tuning was reentrant: the G string was an octave higher than one would normally expect it to be. The tuning gave the sound of the mnemonic “My Dog Has Fleas”.

The new instrument could be played using the same fingering geometry for making chords on the guitar, but with no bass. Like the rajão, it could be used for melody and rhythm, ensemble or solo. (The rajão was tuned DGCEA, with the D and G strings reentrant. On the new four-string instrument, tuned GCEA, only the G was reentrant.)

To market their new instrument, they took it directly to King Kalakaua, an accomplished musician. Paniolos, Mexican cowboys, brought the guitar to Hawaii earlier. Kalakaua could play the mini-rajão immediately, loved it and it quickly became the favorite musical instrument of the islands — as well as the first conscious souvenir of any place.

Dan also says...

"The braguinha is the father of the ukulele and gave it its size, but the rajão is the mother that gave it its heart and voice.Dan Scanlan  

Fascinating stuff! Do check out Dan’s website where you can download his full version of Ukulele History for free and find other useful ukulele stuff. 

The popularity of Hawaiian music quickly spread to mainland America and spawned a ukulele craze. The myth that the ukulele was a traditional Hawaiian instrument became a successful marketing ploy. Some sources claim the machete is a distant relative of the Renaissance 4 course guitar of Spain. I have not been able to verify this but it does rather challenge the sterotypical image of hula girls, hibiscus flowers and Hawaiian shirts!

So, this quintessentially Hawaiian instrument has a pedigree. The ukulele is, however, still struggling to assert itself as a serious instrument. Mention a ukulele and many people find it difficult to see beyond George Formby, Tiny Tim and, yes, the hula girls and grass skirts. But perhaps things are changing. Sales of ukulele have reached 250 000 a year in the UK and over 1 000 000 in the USA. Will Grove White of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain reckons that the ukulele is taking over from the recorder as the chosen instrument of the class room. The ukulele is a small instrument making a big splash. It is the perfect way to introduce children to music. Much more accessible than the guitar, small children can quickly learn to play chords and simple tunes. Grasping the rudiments of melody and harmony at an early age provides an excellent background for learning other instruments.

This brings me back to Weeping Willie and the “plastic fantastic”. The original 1950 Islander plastic ukulele by Mario Maccaferri sold millions. Jim Tranquada and John King say that 80% to 90% of those ukuleles were bought for children. The plastic ukuleles sold like hot cakes. But the ukulele soon gained the image of being little more than a child’s toy. As someone who takes the ukulele seriously - as a teacher and performer - this is both good and bad news. 

How does the new Makala Waterman all plastic ukulele shape up? Well, it is cheap. Mine cost £35. This is an affordable instrument for most parents. It is also durable and comes in a variety of colours. It is likely to appeal to children. The sound is surprisingly good. These are the positives. But, the action is high, making it potentially difficult to play. The intonation is also poor and mine seems to have developed a buzz on the 3rd string. From experience, children are soon frustrated if they find it too difficult for their left hand fingers to hold down the strings. When they do manage to hold down a note they also notice if it sounds “bad”. A lot of effort for a bad result is not a good way to encourage children to persevere. 

This is why poor Willie is still weeping. As much as we want to love the “plastic fantastic” we are both disappointed. Willie is struggling with high action and poor intonation. I am disappointed that Makala couldn’t make the action more suitable for children. As a teacher it is sad to see an initially enthusiastic child struggling to play an unwieldy instrument. Hopefully, Makala will be able to do something about the high action. I fear their affordable instrument is in danger of becoming a rather expensive toy. 

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Photos © Josie Elias

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