It’s smaller and cuter than the guitar, with just four strings. The ukulele of Portuguese descent became the most popular instrument during the pandemic. Here’s why
Namrata D’souza, a sports writer, says the ukulele has helped her manage her anxiety levels. Pic/Satej Shinde
In 2016, Siddhartha Jhunjhunwalla, founder of Bengaluru-based Kadence, was the first to enter the musical instrument market with the ukulele. While the stringed instrument shares some similarities with an acoustic guitar—a common shape that amplifies sound in a lightweight body—its size, chords, tuning and generally how the instrument behaves is vastly different. The standard guitar has six strings, while the ukulele has four. It’s these elements (which only work in uke’s favour) that propelled the Bengaluru-based sound engineer to dive into the segment with 30 models, all indigenously manufactured. “Our research had shown that the chances of ukuleles getting popular was high because of its diminutive body, portability, affordability and ease of learning.” He was right: it fared well. But, in the last one year, it’s popularity has surprised even Jhunjhunwala.
Kadence sold around 50,000 units between January and December 2019. The number tripled to 1,50,000 in 2020. While it’s the millennials that form a large chunk of its fans, parents, working professionals and even retired seniors have now joined the fold. “The guitar was our highest selling instrument, but now the ukulele is at par. What has happened since the Coronavirus outbreak is that a hobby culture has emerged. People are cooped up at home, have more time on their hands and there can’t be a better time to learn something new.” Jhunjhunwalla launched the company in 2010 to offer quality instruments. “While handling stage sound installations at concerts and gigs, we noticed that there was a vacuum when it came to affordable and good quality instruments. The established brands were very expensive and had additional inventory issues. So, we decided to design and manufacture indigenously to be able to bring down the costs.”
Mumbai restaurateur and former DJ, Gurmeet Arora, who runs Flax and Yazu-Pan Asian Supper Club, was one of those in Mumbai who bought the instrument last year. “Having been in the field of music, the ukulele has always fascinated me. It’s not intimidating given its size, has simple chords and a bright and beautiful sound. When you play it, you realise that it sounds softer than the guitar.” With restaurants locked up last year around this time, Arora says he channelled his energies on learning new skills. He even released a poetry book titled Reflections of a mind: Perspective Poetry of Our Being. “Playing the instrument has been a way of feeding the right side of my brain, which has a lot to do with the arts, and imagination. It’s a break from the analytical thinking that I’m expected to do every day,” he shares.
Marketing professional Veronica Jose, who is fairly proficient at the instrument, says you do not need in-depth technical knowledge to be able to play the ukulele. A basic knowledge of chords works. Moreover, there are plenty of free resources online to learn to play it. Jose managed to learn with the help of YouTube tutorials. Like Arora, she, too, bought the ukulele in the lockdown. “I used to take belly dancing classes which stopped a year ago, so I had the weekends to myself. So, I bought my instrument from an ecommerce site, which had very limited options at the time.”
The Ukuleles come in four colours and sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. Its usage depends on its purpose and application. For instance, the tenor ukulele is larger than the concert and soprano ukulele, which means it tends to have a deeper, fuller and louder sound. Often, performers prefer tenors as they can produce a wider range of notes. The soprano is the smallest of the four standard sizes, and is known for the bright sound it produces that people commonly associate with traditional instruments. Baritones are the largest of the models, and are meant for people with greater skill and experience levels. They are known to produce the deepest, fullest sound and are a lot like the guitar. Jhunjhunwalla recommends the concert model for beginners as it has warm tones and is suitable for most skill levels.
Despite its tropical sounds, the instrument did not originally originate in Hawaii as is often assumed. Incidentally, it has Portuguese roots and was brought to the island by immigrants from Portugal in the late 1800s.
Namrata D’souza is a digital sports writer who took to the instrument after a friend gifted it to her during the lockdown. “I’ve always wanted to play a string instrument, and it might sound amusing, but because I’m short, I was advised not to try the guitar. To be honest, I did struggle with it.” D’souza says it has helped calm her anxiety and control panic attacks. And her instrument has a name—Anne. The act of repeating musical patterns helps give the mind something constructive to focus on, she says.
The only downside though, is that it is underrated and not considered a serious instrument. Ukes rarely make an appearance at concerts. Jose agrees. “I know a lot of fulltime musicians who play it, but in informal, indoor and unplugged settings. It could be because of the way the instrument is designed. Guitars have a lot more features for a professional set-up.”
Despite its “flaws”, D’souza knows that she won’t allow it to gather dust. “Even if it’s for 10 minutes every day, I’m committed to playing it.”
Number of pieces Siddhartha Jhunjhunwala sold during the first India lockdown.
11 April,2021 08:53 AM IST | Mumbai | Anju Maskeri