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Review of Roland Prakken's new book 'A Flea or Not A Flea ?'

I'm always excited when a new ukulele book is published – be it either a new music book or a book about the ukulele. I am especially excited when it is a book all about the history of the Ukulele and it is by the brilliant writer/musician Roland Prakken.

There are only a handful of books written about the history of the Ukulele –which considering its popularity is quite surprising. For me, Jim Tranquada and John Kings ‘The Ukulele – A History’ set the standard incredibly high and is a superb, informative book. I have read it numerous times and it's incredibly well written and a joy to read.

So now we have another wonderful book to add to the exclusive club of books on the history of the Ukulele, Roland Prakken’s excellent ‘A Flea, or not a Flea ?’. Roland is a German musician who is a wonderful ukulele player and he has a vast knowledge about the ukulele. In his new book, each page oozes with the affection he has for our diminutive friend. The book gives a detailed history of the ukulele, whilst covering lots of the history of Madeira (the Ukulele’s biological parents one might say) and Hawaii (the ukuleles loving adoptive parents one might say). The book is dotted with wonderful stories and observations of not only the ukuleles history, but also how it came to be where it is today. It also features Rolands sharp wit throughout. When talking about King Kamehameha I of Hawaii Roland quips,

‘Kamehameha 1 had not been content with just one wife – after all, why be King if there are no perks ?’

Any ukulele players will easily identify with many of Roland observations, especially regarding the purchasing of new ukuleles.

‘Conventions with the wonderful woman at my side about the purchase of a new ukulele revolve, not always, but often, around the questions ‘Do you already have an idea where you want to put it ?’

I often quote Jim Beloff who said ‘There are no ukulele Police’ and Roland uses this wonderful phrase too when reassuring us that there is ‘no required way’ to play a C Chord.

This is Roland's take on the purchasing of expensive ukulele’s :

‘I know a number of my fellow musicians who play professionally with rather mediocre equipment. This is mostly due to the economic status of the professional musician, and the really expensive instruments are very often found in the hands of talented amateurs’. Wise words indeed.

The book is pretty much chronological with the first quarter of the book dealing with the time prior to when the now infamous ‘Ravenscrag’ boat brings the Madeiran immigrants to Hawaii. Roland explains the very interesting German connection that the boat was chartered by Wilhelm Hillebrand, who was appointed by the Hawaiian Government to recruit workers for the island. Hillebrand in 1879 chartered the Ravenscrag with 599 Madeirans, including the family of Manuel Nunes. His writing is detailed and certainly avoids the trap of reducing the story to ‘The Portuguese arrive, Fernandes plays, the Hawaiians are enthusiastic, the ukulele is invented, the end’.

The book then brings us all the way up to the current time, with detailed explanations of how it got here. The are many biographical details about the people who helped along the way, and I especially enjoyed the chapter on Ukulele Ike.

If you are looking to further your knowledge about the history of the Ukulele, and indeed its homeland, then this is a great book. It was originally written in German but Rolands partner Marion may has done a truly wonderful job of translating it into English. It flows very well throughout and is an easy yet informative read. It is littered with humour and facts, coupled together in a fun yet knowledgeable way. A Flea or not a flea is available here :

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