By Janice Lindsay, Contributing Writer
If more people played the ukulele, this old world might be a more peaceful place.
When I decided to learn the ukulele a few years ago, I didn’t know that I was joining an international phenomenon. I just wanted an instrument that would be easy to learn and portable. But if I were traveling, I could find a group of friendly ukulele players in every state, every Canadian province, and at least 20 other countries. And they would welcome me in. Uke players are like that.
The ukulele looks like a miniature guitar. It has four strings. In an hour or so, you can learn the basics and strum along to simple songs. You don’t have to be a maestro to make pretty good music and enjoy yourself, especially if you team up with other ukers.
The ukulele is associated with Hawaii, but it wasn’t invented there. It’s based on a couple of similar instruments taken to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants around 1880. Hawaiians fell in love with the music. Local Portuguese cabinet makers adapted the designs and made the little instrument for Hawaiians. Hawaiians brought it to the continental United States in the early twentieth century. Americans fell in love with it. In the 1920s, the cool kids played the ukulele. As Americans traveled around the world in war and in peace, they took the ukulele with them.
People who don’t play the ukulele might laugh at it. They don’t consider it a Serious Instrument. That is because they haven’t heard it played beautifully.
Also, people of a certain maturity tend to associate it with entertainer Tiny Tim and his 1960s song, sung in falsetto, about tip toeing through the tulips, with ukulele accompaniment. Tiny Tim did not kill the uke’s popularity, but he sent it into a long coma, from which it has been reviving during the last twenty-five years or so.
I do not play beautifully. I don’t mind admitting that. We ukulele players don’t take ourselves too seriously. We don’t suffer much for our art. You can’t suffer when you’re having so much fun.
The ukulele is a social instrument. It begs to be played with other ukuleles.
When I learned that a new ukulele group was forming in my town, I signed up right away. We meet every week. We have a couple of hundred songs in our repertoire, we’ve performed at a few local places, we learn from each other. When we make music together, we forget our cares and our differences. Making uke music has helped several of us through tough times, including me.
Lest you think that only unknowns appreciate the power of the ukulele, consider this: Some famous musicians got their musical starts playing the ukulele, including Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Jimi Hendrix, Peter Frampton, Neil Young, and Noel Paul Stookey who was the Paul in Peter, Paul, and Mary. Among the Beatles, John Lennon’s first instrument was a ukulele. George Harrison was a huge ukulele fan.
Other people spotted playing the ukulele include entertainers Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, and Bette Middler; former British prime minister Tony Blair; financier Warren Buffet; astronaut Neil Armstrong; and even Taylor Swift. The love spreads.
Ukuleles are friendly, inexpensive, and unpretentious.
So, if you want to contribute to world peace, or even just your own peace, buy a ukulele. Learn to play. If you don’t find a teacher in your town, you’ll find plenty on the internet. Then find a welcoming group to play with. Or start one.
As one of our group’s favorite songs says, “When we play our ukuleles, can’t help but smile.”