It's been 40 years since Tiny Tim's televised marriage ceremony on Johnny Carson's The Tonight Show . But the tiny instrument he strummed for his falsetto version of Tiptoe Through the Tulips is making noise again. The ukulele is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the likes of Shelley O'Brien, a Toronto-based, B.C.-raised ukulele player. She recently released an enchanting album of quirky pop music, You, Me and the Birds , and is currently in Europe carrying her custom-made "uke" toward the Second Helsinki International Ukulele Festival (Aug. 21-23), where she'll be the lone Canadian representative.
O'Brien plays as she goes: Monday it was a public market in Reykjavik, Iceland - "I sold CDs in the sunshine" - and tomorrow it's the Netherlands. When asked about that nation's famous flowers, she does some tiptoeing herself, good-naturedly but pointedly informing her interviewer that tulips are indigenous to the former Persian empire, not the Netherlands, and that the clichés associated with ukulele music are erroneous, too. "Some people treat you as a novelty act," says O'Brien on the phone. "But really, if they listen to the album, they'll realize it's a legitimate Canadian folk music. I just happen to use a sweet little Hawaiian instrument."
O'Brien's album is textured with an orchestra of various instruments and found sounds. There's a touch of melancholy to her voice - a tone that's offset by the uke's twinkling toyish timbre. O'Brien, schooled in piano, maintains that the small, charismatic instrument was integral. "It adds a specific colour," she says. "A lot of the songs could not have been written if I didn't play the ukulele."
It's a legitimate Canadian folk music. I just happen to use a sweet little Hawaiian instrument.
In Helsinki, O'Brien, who formerly sang jazz on cruise ships and currently works as an assistant to a Bay Street bank president, will not be a lonely strummer. The city has given over an open-air stage for performances, and a historic theatre will host a ukulele film festival showcasing features such as Rock That Uke , which examines the use of the ukulele by alternative-rock musicians.
Closer to home, you'll find O'Brien and dozens of other players on Wednesdays at Toronto's Dominion Pub, venue for the weekly Corktown Ukulele Jam. The organizers also recently hired a vintage streetcar for a rolling ukulele party. "People were mad when the streetcar wouldn't stop," says O'Brien with a laugh.
If people were mad, though, it was just for a moment. They would have heard the high spirit, smiling as the noise passed them. "It's the tone, it's the smallness of the instrument," says O'Brien. "It's glee - pure glee."