The ukulele, that toylike Hawaiian miniguitar, is practically a
musical pariah. Never mind that great instrumentalists like Eddie
Kamae and Jake Shimabukuro have made dazzling music with it; most
people still associate the uke with tiki rooms and
paper-umbrella-topped tropical drinks.
Japanese artist Nobuaki Date has found a way to transform the
ukulele from kitsch into very moving art — and he’s done it
without playing a note. As Sherry Nakanishi reports in Kyoto
Journal (#56, 2004), Date builds ukes out of wood and other
materials salvaged from demolished or remodeled buildings — and
each instrument is a carefully crafted memorial to the vanished
The ukulele he made from a defunct public bathhouse in Kyoto
bears a big red character for ‘men’ on its back; the wood is from
the men’s entrance. A nearly 300-year-old pillar and shelf from a
Buddhist temple damaged in the 1995 Kobe earthquake provided the
material for another instrument. And the uke reborn from the ruins
of a private home near Osaka incor-porates part of a well-worn
handrail and bright fabric from the wall of the bedroom.
Date can play the ukulele, too, but it’s hardly necessary: The
music of these instruments is all in the eye and the memory.