Ukeleles and Inversions
There was a cute article in last Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle about an apparent new ukelele fad that’s sweeping the nation. It was interesting to me, because I’d been just starting to take notice of the instrument. It just seems to keep cropping up. I noticed only recently, for example, that it’s buried in the texture of a couple of Burt Bacharach songs, (albeit mostly bad ones).
The main reason the ukelele is on my mind at the moment is the now overexposed Israel Kamakawiwo’ole recording of his “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What a Wonderful World” medley, which I listen to a lot with my son. His playing of the instrument is one of many beautiful things about that recording.
If you don’t know what I’m referring to, you’ll recognize it when you hear the clip, as it’s been quite overexposed in recent years. It’s a reworking of these songs accompanied only by ukelele, where the melody is drastically altered and the harmony is completely original. It’s wildly popular, and with good reason. Here’s a bit of it for reference:
Now I’ll let you in on my theory as to why this song is so mysteriously beautiful:
I’m guessing that a typical chord chart for this song would read: C – Em – F – G, etc. But, owing to the particular tuning of the tenor ukelele, with the low open G, almost every chord is an inversion, and the bass never sings anything other than G, G# and A.
So the result is: C/G – Em/G – F/A – G – F/A – G – Em/G – Am – F/A. It’s more beautiful this way because the voice leading is better. Everything your counterpoint teacher taught you is true. (I’m willing to overlook the first chord being in 2nd inversion in Bruddah Iz’s case.)
(By the way, here’s an interesting bit of background on this recording that I just found while researching this.)