Ozarks student part of booming ukulele revival

Release Date: 6/14/2010

Clarksville, Ark. --- National Public Radio's recent story on a documentary called "The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog" enlightened its audience to a happy and surprising fact: the ukulele – relegated to dim memories of Tiny Tim playing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," or perhaps the odd Beatles song featuring the plucky little four-stringed instrument – has made a comeback.

Melody Teo brings a little ukulele flair to the Ozarks campus.

Ozarks students, faculty and friends have been enjoying the “ukulele revival” for a year, thanks to Melody Teo. Teo, 18, a native of Klang, in Malaysia, who will be a sophomore this fall, took up the ukulele on a lark. “I took piano lessons at age 10,” she said. “I had started to pick up the guitar when I was 13 or 14, but I started seriously focusing on it when I was 16. Then I had a friend who played the ukulele, and it looked like so much fun I finally decided to buy one. And it is fun.”

The ukulele originated in the 19th century as a Hawaiian interpretation of a small guitar-like instrument brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants. It gained great popularity elsewhere in the United States during the early 20th century, and from there spread internationally. According to Queen Liliuokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here,” from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come). The ukulele soon became an icon of the Jazz Age. Highly portable and relatively inexpensive, it also proved popular with amateur players throughout the 1920s, a role that would eventually be supplanted by the guitar in the early years of rock and roll.

Melody started playing on the campus mall last October with her friend Lauren Ray (they appear in several YouTube videos, and subsequently Melody appeared as a musical guest during last fall’s Project Poet.

Lauren Ray and Melody Teo doing a cover of "Under the Sea" from the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid."

“At first I thought, ‘It’s so tiny, it’s gonna break!’” Melody said. “But I got used to it pretty quickly. Mostly I play for my friends. I haven’t played to too many crowds yet.” Her recent impromptu performance for U of O admissions counselors was, however, met with enthusiastic applause.

Melody Teo performs a ukulele number for the Ozarks Admission Counselors.

Melody said being from a more urban area of Malaysia did not create too much culture shock for her upon arrival in Clarksville, mostly due to the fact her older sister Steffi is already a student here. Melody is a Psychology major with, understandably, a Music minor. “I’m not sure exactly what I want to do with my life yet,” she said. “I hope I get to do something in relation to music, but I'm just gonna have to wait and see about that,” she added with a laugh.

Until she figures that out, she has a beautiful voice and dancing ukulele fingers to fill the time.