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.