One plucky instrument

Steve Martin, three of the four Beatles, Peter Sellers, Anne Murray and Eddie Vedder all played one, as did Buster Keaton, Dick Van Dyke and Arthur Godfrey.

It’s not the guitar, piano or drums.

Stumped?

Maybe the name Don Ho might help.

It only measures 16 by 16 inches, but the beloved ukulele has left a big impression on nearly every cultural landscape, although here in the United States, the plucked instrument is synonymous with Pacific Island culture.

The instrument, which originated in Portugal, was popular among Portuguese sailors who eventually brought it to the shores of Hawaii. Later, the instrument traveled into the lower 48 states.

“Ukulele” roughly translates to “jumping flea”; Hawaiians gave the instrument that name when they saw the quick finger movement — like that of a flea — of the people playing it.

Though popular culture has made the ukulele a bit of a novelty, the four-stringed fretted instrument has an amazing story, which is being told in “The Evolution of the Ukulele: The Story of Hawaii’s Jumping Flea,” now under way at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco.

“It tells a great story of the immigration of an object,” says Kate Eilertsen, the museum’s director, who added the exhibition marks the museum’s first musical instrument show in 10 years.

As far as instruments go, the ukulele is generally easy for most people to pick up. Eilertsen equates it to those plastic recorders most of us played at one time or another in school.

“It became every person’s instrument,” says Eilertsen, explaining perhaps why the ukulele’s popularity endures.

Now through Oct. 21, more than 80 ukuleles are on display at the museum, including one that, while not the mostbeautiful of the many displayed, it is believed to be the first one ever made.

Some of Eilertsen’s favorites are created by contemporary instrument makers, including one that encases a bottle of Johnny Walker scotch.

Folks are also invited to try out a handful of ukuleles the museum purchased for aspiring players.

The exhibit ties into complementary events, too, such as the San Francisco Ukulele Festival on Sept. 7 and 8. On Sept. 7 at Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., 27-year-old Jake Shimabukuro, also known as the Jimi Hendrix of ukulele, plays. Tickets are $22 to $28. Call (415) 392-4400 or visit www.cityboxoffice.com.

On Sept. 8, at Yerba Buena Gardens on Mission between Third and Fourth streets, a free concert features performances by the Paper Dolls, Tippy Canoe, the UFOs, Al Dodge and the Tin Pan Haoles, Faith Ako, slack-key guitarist Carey Camacho, the Victor Ohana Band, Kimo Hussey and Ho’omalie, Ukulele Ray, The Frisky Frolics and Ka Ehu Kai.

Evolution of the Ukulele

Where: Museum of Craft and Folk Art, 51 Yerba Buena Lane (at Mission between Third and Fourth streets), San Francisco

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closes Oct. 21

Tickets: $5 general; $4 seniors; free for children under 18

Contact: (415) 227-4888 or www.mocfa.org

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