Tiny instrument makes big impression on German musicians

The ukulele may be cute and small, but in just the last few years its influence has become outsized in German music circles. Moises Mendoza explores the country's burgeoning scene.

Tiny instrument makes big impression on German musicians
Photo: Moises Mendoza

Andreas David grinned blissfully as he strummed his ukulele on a recent evening at the Petrus Church in Berlin’s Lichterfelde district.

The crowd seemed bemused and impressed as he and his three-person ukulele band, the Lucky Leles, played everything from Elvis hits to the Baywatch theme.

“I know, I know, people aren’t used to such a big sound coming from a small instrument,” he said. “But I love my ukulele.”

David is not alone. In fact, the Berlin-based group is part of a vibrant ukulele scene that has sprung up over the last few years in Germany, where not long ago the instrument was less well-known.

Since 2005, nearly 3,000 people have joined the national ukulele club founded by a 54-year-old enthusiast named Raimund Sper. In cities across the country enthusiasts meet up for jam sessions each weekend. Ukulele bands such as the Lucky Leles have sprung up and tour the country playing everything from Hawaiian tunes to Blues Brothers songs.

What’s driving the instrument’s German renaissance? Many enthusiasts point to its recent ubiquity on television. Entertainer Stefan Raab is said to have a near-obsessive fascination with the instrument. He’s known to strum quite often on the air.

But the ukulele really shot into the spotlight when a German record producer heavily promoted Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s ukulele classic “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” last year, turning it into a number one hit.

The song dominated German airwaves for more than eight weeks, introducing a new generation to the venerable instrument, and driving people into Leleland – a Berlin ukulele outlet that has become the pulsing centre of the instrument’s German subculture.

An explosion of interest

The shop in a sleepy part of Kreuzberg opened only last year. But it already attracts the world’s top ukulele musicians browsing through the dozens of ukulele brands on offer – everything from Australia’s Cole Clark to the famed Californian Ohana.

After the explosion of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” sales of ukuleles at the shop went from a few a week to roughly four per day.

“It’s really been incredible,” said owner Harald Truetsch, 52, in his store on a recent afternoon. “People are really interested in this instrument now.”

Truetsch’s story is a typical one among ukulele-lovers. A guitar player since his youth, he discovered the ukulele just messing about years ago.

But as he became more skilled, he struggled to find a like-minded community or some shops dedicated just to ukuleles.

Leleland is a way to fill that void, said Truetsch, who still has a day job in the advertising business, but says he’d like to eventually take up ukulele selling full-time and help turn Berlin into a world-centre for the instrument.

He offers his counter space for up-and-coming ukulele bands looking to attract fans to concerts and gives advice to young visitors looking to purchase an instrument.

“It’s the instrument of the future,” he said. “It’s so small you can carry it around everywhere with you. That’s what makes it so special.”

Perfect for kids

While the ukulele may be the instrument of the future, it already has a long history, rooted in Hawaiian folklore.

It was developed in 19th century Hawaii but became more popular in the 1900s as it spread throughout North America and then to Europe.

But though it burrowed somewhat into Britain’s musical subculture – today the country even boasts a ukulele orchestra – it remained largely ignored on continental Europe.

People like Truetsch and David think that’s changing quickly.

“Once you discover the ukulele, you can’t put it down,” said David after his band’s concert. He discovered the ukulele a few years ago and says it’s become his new favourite instrument.

The instrument’s price and size – inexpensive and perfect for big and tiny fingers alike – make it a particularly good choice for children. In fact, in the 20th century, those qualities spurred the ukulele’s widespread use in Canadian schools.

And that bodes well for the ukulele’s future in Germany, says Sper, the founder of the national ukulele club.

His next goal is to introduce the ukulele in elementary school music classes.

“Our vision is that as many people as possible will have the opportunity to play it,” he said.

Moises Mendoza

[email protected]

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.