At age 11, Brittni Paiva already had seven years of experience playing classical piano. But that year, when her grandfather introduced her to the ukulele, the Hilo, Hawaii, native discovered an even greater passion.
"It was love at first touch," she says.
Now 21, Paiva is one of the few women to find fame playing the ukulele, a small four-string instrument similar to a guitar. "It's very unassuming," Paiva says of the instrument's allure. "And you can play pretty much anything on it."
Paiva's latest CD, her fourth, demonstrates the point. Four Strings: The Fire Within includes her versions of the classic show tune "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Maroon 5's "Sunday Morning" and Carlos Santana's "Europa" alongside her original compositions.
"Brittni brings a whole new spirit to the music and to the instrument: pop sensibilities in a smooth jazz format," says John Schroeter, music producer and author of Between the Strings: The Secret Lives of Guitars. "It's got a new kind of energy—it's infectious."
The ukulele is primarily associated with Hawaii, having been brought there by Portuguese immigrants in the 18th century. Hawaiians gave the instrument its name, which translates to jumping flea, as a description of the way fingers looked when rapidly moving over its strings.
The ukulele is experiencing a resurgence these days, thanks in large part to young ambassadors such as Paiva and Jake Shimabukuro, 33, another ukulele prodigy from Hawaii. As a result, the instrument's popularity is growing, and many people beyond the 50th state are picking up ukuleles and forming amateur clubs.
"It's a relatively inexpensive instrument, it's easy to play and learn, and it's a happy instrument," Schroeter says. "And if the times were ever ripe for something that is both joyful and inexpensive, it is now."
Videos of Paiva playing on YouTube.com have received more than a million hits, and she enjoys sharing her passion of the instrument with her fans via MySpace and Twitter.
But Paiva's musical success is not the only mix of the traditional and the modern in her life. She connected with her husband, Branden, whom she married in 2008, when he sent her a message through MySpace after seeing her in concert. Once they met in person and started to date, they pledged to save their first kiss for their wedding day, taking an old-fashioned vow of purity. During their courtship, Paiva found music to be the perfect outlet for her emotions.
"We decided not to say we loved each other until we were sure we were meant for each other," she says. "There was a point where I really wanted to tell him, but instead I wrote "Made for Me," a song on the new album."
Paiva's skills as a songwriter and instrumentalist have made her a star in her home state, earning Hawaii Music Awards for her second and third albums, and a Na Hoku Hanohano Award for Most Promising Artist in 2005, the year of her debut. But like the ukulele, she's gaining a following on the American mainland, where she tours for several months each year.
"One of my goals is making an album that reaches an even more diverse audience," she says. "But I also just want to keep making music. In the next year, she also hopes to tour Europe."
"Brittni is determined to bring a new level of respect to the ukulele," Schroeter says. "That includes shattering all the stereotypes it has accumulated since the Portuguese introduced it to the islands all those years ago. That she has accomplished this much in so little time means we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg—for her and the instrument."