Month: October 2013

For the Love of Ukuleles…

Hello, dear readers!

As you can tell, I haven’t had much time to write a meaningful blog post in almost two months, between starting my final community college term (with Chemistry and Algebra–Probably two of my least favorite subjects, because I’m not a sciences/math type, I’m more of a free-spirited creative who’d rather be taking additional credits in creative writing–you come here, so you probably already know this…) and taking vacation (which, of course, is the week before midterms, so I’m left playing catch up in two subjects I strongly dislike). I’m taking small steps to at least get back into a regular rhythm on the blog so that you’re not thinking I’ve dropped off the face of the planet. =)

My wife and I took our vacation this year to Hawaii, and while the experience had a couple of key holes in it thanks to a government shutdown (no USS Arizona or sunrise at Haleakala, since both were national parks), it was for the most part, a relaxing experience. (I say “for the most part” because we drove the road to Hana, which, while a beautiful drive, is extremely stressful as the driver, especially when you’re driving a car wide enough to make you question the ability to get through certain tight spots without wrecking the car–If you’re going to do Hana on Maui, I recommend paying for the guided tour on a tour bus…). The biggest highlight for me was picking up a new musical instrument: The ukulele.

As a bit of background, I would say that I was not raised to be the most musical person in the world–My sister’s always been more talented in the music department, playing piano and signing, and because I knew she had those talents, I never really bothered trying when we were growing up. In junior high school, when we had to take either band or choir, I chose band, and spent three years playing trombone, which was really the first instrument I ever picked up and learned. In high school, my dad traded in his accordion to get me a guitar, which I still have and know maybe two songs for (the whole thing with six strings messed with my head–I wasn’t sure how to do that with only five fingers). I bought a Yamaha keyboard on clearance at Costco with the intent of teaching myself piano, that lasted through learning to play one hand’s worth of “The Entertainer” before it began to collect dust.

Beyond my instrumental experience, I actually spent most of my life thinking that I was tone deaf, not finding out that I wasn’t until my wife (girlfriend at the time) pointed out that while I was singing along with music in the car, I noticed when I hit a wrong note and corrected myself. Apparently, tone deaf people don’t do that.

Well, when you’re married to a musician (my wife has her masters in music education, plays flute, and is an exquisite vocalist), you try to be more musical. I joined the church choir as a bass, and I think I’ve gone from being horrid to at least mediocre in the years I’ve been doing it. But instrumentally, I’ve been without one I was comfortable with since junior high. So being in Hawaii, I was a little surprised with myself when I discovered an urge to learn the ukulele.

It started while we were at the Polynesian cultural center on Oahu. For those who have never been, my best description is that the Polynesian Cultural center is what you would get if you were to re-theme Disneyland with the motif from the Enchanted Tiki Room, but removed the talking animals and thrill rides, making it more educational. It’s a fascinating place, we got to learn about different island cultures and traditions. We spent time learning about the islands of Samoa from a hilarious individual who did the Heisman pose with a coconut, then showed us how to husk a coconut and start a fire. We learned about Tahiti,and how they played games that involved throwing stuff at each other (that was the gist of the presentation–they had an extremely challenging game they played tossing sticks back and forth in a group without dropping them, it didn’t look at all easy). And we got to see how drums were used in Tongan music. On the map, from the very outset of the trip, what caught my eye on the map was the missionary home, where they were giving free ukulele lessons.

Now, I wasn’t born yesterday–if you’re offering something “free”, it’s generally going to be with the intent of trying to get someone to buy something. Freemium games on iOS are not a new concept to me. But I was curious, so we went to give it a shot. A grandfatherly gentleman was at the station, a volunteer at the cultural center who was there to give the lessons. He handed Amanda and I each a ukulele, showed us how to hold it, how to strum it, and pointed us to a eye-chart sized poster that showed a few chords, as well as the tune and lyrics for “You are my sunshine.He walked us through how to play, patiently waiting on us as we looked around on the fret board to form the proper chords. Afterward we played through, we walked to another poster with “Somehwere over the rainbow” on it, a staple in ukulele music thanks to Israel “Bruddah Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole, and he lead us through playing it as well. As I sat there, strumming, listening to the mellow tones resonating through the mahogany body of the instrument, I discovered something: I really LIKED playing it. It’s not something that I can say about an instrument I’ve played since trombone.

The thing about the Ukulele is there are only four strings–whereas a guitar confused me because I had to sort out which fingers went to which string for what chords, I found ukulele significantly easier because the number of fingers matched up with the number of strings. I discussed things with my wife, and after a careful assessment of what we could afford and if we could fit one into our luggage (as it happened, there was plenty of space in my carry-on for it), we decided to pick one up. I picked out one of the cheapest ones they had, a beautiful mahogany soprano ukulele made by Kala, and a spiral bound book with some simple songs and chord charts I could use to learn.

I spent the evening back at the hotel figuring out different chord progressions and songs I was familiar with, either from the book or by pulling up uke tabs on my iPad. I put in repetitions, mostly between “Over the Rainbow” and “You are my Sunshine”, which I was afraid my wife was getting really bored with, since they have almost the same chord progressions. The next day, when we arrived me Maui at our condo, I spent more time practicing. It became a ritual, I would pull out the ukulele when we were at the condo, sometimes go out to the porch, and just begin to practice, becoming steadily more confident in what I was doing. My muscle memory has begun to take over, to the extent that certain songs don’t require me to look at the chords every time I’m coming up on a switch.

On the flight to Maui, my wife saw an advertisement for a ukulele festival, which we decided to go to (having made ukulele my new obsession). It’s put on by Roy Sakuma, who is one of the legendary ukulele teachers on the island and has been involved in holding ukulele festivals since 1971. The Maui Ukulele Festival was in its 8th year, and had a whole host of renowned ukulele artists performing for the afternoon.

The stories of the performers were about as varied as they come–one local girl got up and performed solo, a teenage prodigy who did a medley of pop-songs. There was a group of people who had shown up for a free ukulele lesson from Roy on Saturday that got to perform on stage for a song with one of the other groups. And then there was Kamakakehau Fernandez, born in Little Rock, adopted and raised by a Hawaiian family, who in addition to being a phenomenal talent on the ukulele, is also a freakishly good falsetto singer, hitting notes that would even give my wife a challenge.

Most impressive to me was Nick Acosta, a young man who was born with only one full arm. As someone who’s just beginning with the instrument, I was absolutely blown away at his ability to play–In the video I linked, he’s picking, something I can’t even do with two good hands. He’s incredibly gifted, only a teenager, but he played a rendition of “Wipeout” that got the crowd cheering.

Clearly, I’m not of the islands–My ancestry hails from about the farthest point away from Hawaii, on the frigid fjords of Norway, but I’ve fallen in love with their most iconic instrument. I’m learning more songs for it on my own than I think I’ve ever motivated myself to learn on an instrument I’ve self-studied. While I was not born into this, and it really does not tie into my cultural roots, I’ve adopted the ukulele.

Or more appropriately, it has adopted me.