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The Revolution on Uke

Is the Ukulele the Next Instrument of the Punk Rock Revolution?

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The Revolution on Uke

Ukulele Anthem

Amanda Palmer
The ukulele may cause you to conjure up images of a luau, full of fake tans and ugly shirts, where people sing along badly to covers of "Tiny Bubbles" or "Somwhere Over The Rainbow," and in fact, that's pretty decent vision of the instrument's origins. Developed in the 1880's in Hawaii as an interpretation of the small guitars carried by Portuguese immigrants with a name that roughly translates to mean "jumping flea," the uke has long been the traditional instrument of the Aloha State. But recent developments may show that it's on its way to being the next instrument of punk rock revolution.

Take for example the situation in Aceh, a conservative Sharia-ruled province in Indonesia, where the government is conducting a systematic crackdown on punks, going so far as to raid shows and arrest attendees for the simple charge of being punks, going so far as to shuttle them off to "reeducation camps" where their heads are shaved and they are subjected to religious education and the politics of conformity. In Aceh reports have arisen of a band called Chaotic Pavement. Consisting of a single, beat-up ukelele with five guys on vocals, they've been compared to Woodie Guthrie, borrowing lyrical themes from bands like Nausea or Doom. It actually sounds pretty amazing, with an authentic vibe of politically charged punk rock. And while other areas where punk rock is facing government persecution feature bands are profiling traditional three-chord electric punk bands (like Pussy Riot in Russia and the Rebel Riot in Burma), punk rock is all about making do and DIY ethics, so making the most of what they have makes Chaotic Pavement just as punk - perhaps more so - than their compatriots in better equipped scenes.

The recent events of the Occupy movement also showed indication of the ukulele's rise as a force in political punk protest, when punk cabaret chanteuse Amanda Palmerappeared at Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street events, performing her "Ukulele Anthem" (Available for free download here), in which she explicitly cites the instrument as a vehicle for change due to its low price and short learning curve, creating what may become the anthem for the ukulele punk revolution.

It takes about an hour to learn how to play the ukulele,
About same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb -
You do the math!
- Amanda Palmer - "Ukulele Anthem"

At SXSW 2011, we went to a Gypsy Punk party, where That Damn Band and the Sour Mash Hug Band played an acoustic set outside, with horns, accordions, banjos and guitars on a hot Texas night. And there was nothing hippie about it. Composed of old school hardcore musicians, these guys are making a move on a similar scale to the likes of Chuck Ragan and Frank Turner, but going so far as to make it a lifestyle choice, embracing the role of the gutter punk with a sound and system for delivery. Acoustic instruments cater to this ethos, allowing for a show to be set up anywhere and in minutes, whether that be for a house show, a squat performance or a political protest. It's the message that makes it punk - not necessarily the means.

The folk frontrunners of political protest music embraced this ideal, even if they weren't aware of it. Woody Guthrie, with his guitar inscribed with "This machine kills fascists," and Pete Seeger with his banjo: "This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender," were the predecessors of political punk rock, and while many would be loathe to admit it, bands like Anti-Flag and Against Me! owe their message to these politically progressive musicians paving the way for protest-inclined songs. Are the ukulele strummers the next wave?

Think about it: in a world where punk rock is being forcibly persecuted by government actions, such as in Aceh or Burma, where it's actually a criminal offense to be a punk, or in situations where fast movements are necessary in order to conduct a protest (the Occupy movement or Pussy Riot's explosive protest performances in Moscow), or anywhere that criticism of one's government is discouraged or expressly forbidden (take your pick), there is a need for punk music. But circumstances also require that the music be covert and compact. The ukulele is small, portable and easy to hide. They're relatively inexpensive, meaning they could be discarded or even distributed to members of the scene in order to allow it to thrive.

It's not even a musical medium that need be limited to areas of harsh repression. Elsewhere, where people enjoy political freedom, what limits every kid from picking up a uke and learning to play it? With only four strings, it's only a short while until you're hammering out a Ramones cover, and from then on, it's a short jump to writing your own anthems. Like the music of its folk predecessors, punk rock has always been about its ability to challenge convention and propagate free thought. What better way to challenge to conventions of the world - and of punk itself - than to move the uke from the luau to the street protest, and to usher in a new era of the revolution? One untied by a scrap of wood and four strings?

This revolution will be ukule-cized.

You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to save the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
- Amanda Palmer - "Ukulele Anthem"
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