This was our very first live recording of the Ukestra for Advent in 2013. The pictures are of the various ukulele playing members and our music ministries.
I used to be really into the ukulele. For a time at church we had a youth-led "ukestra". Many adults played as well. I always found it to be a solid instrument for people who want to sing. It is uncomplicated. It does its job with little fuss. While learning to master an instrument takes a lifetime, it doesn't take long to get a genuine musical sound out the uke. Of course, for some reason many people see this as a weakness. The great Pete Seeger, a paragon of DIY music, lumped it in with the autoharp as "the easiest to get started on and the hardest to continue with past kindergarten". I suspect in both cases his year at Harvard was showing a bit. The fact is, people do play these--and other--apparently "simple" instruments their whole lives while continuing to gain satisfaction from them.
In another way, though, he is not wrong. It takes a lot of work to push past their initial limitations. That said, it is worth it. I also have found it to be a sustainable exercise, at least in part because of how good it sounds playing simple things. After getting frustrated trying to do some complicated maneuver on the uke, one can settle into some three-chord folk songs. Then we hear the ukulele say "you're not that bad, you sound lovely now..."
It is also worth remembering the importance and the history of the ukulele. A similar and smaller instrument--called variously a Cavaquinho or "machete"--was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors who settled there. the body was adapted to maximize the resonance of the native woods of the islands. The construction methods were also refined. Perhaps most important, "reentrant" tuning--in this case placing the second highest string where normally the lowest string would be--became the dominant style. This gave the instrument its intriguing brightness and "pop," not unlike the 5-string banjo. Over time it was adapted by the Hawaiian people to become their national--even royal--instrument. It still has a place of honor on the islands and the most gifted players live there.
Like the banjo, it was born out of adversity and oppression and became something beautiful.
I play the ukulele, mandolin, tenor banjo, and guitar. Each has its own strengths and function. I know I will never be all that good at any of them. That said, I find myself drawn to different ones at different times. For me--and I don't really know why--Advent and Christmas are prime ukulele seasons.
At our most intense we recorded Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies from the Nutcracker on three ukes. We played it live in Advent 2014.
Maybe it is the power of memory. The charm of the instrument--its very appearance is charismatic--makes it a good bet for hospitals, nursing homes, and worship. It is, as I have mentioned, good for both children and adults who are just learning. As such it forms part of the soundtrack of numerous public and private carol-sings. It is portable and easy to bring along to events. It is relatively durable (at least the cheaper ones) and can be played outside without too much fuss and bother.
Also, it doesn't push itself on anyone which--when we are thinking about the stress of this season--is really nice. When I play the banjo and the mandolin I have to be careful not to overwhelm all the "silent nights" and minor chords. The uke rests right where you want it. It points the way for the singers without racing on ahead.
During the late moments of the plague last year we opted for a Christmas Eve ukulele carol sing out in front of the church. We aren't doing that again this year. However, it will remain one of my favorite memories of the season ever. So many people came and so many songs were sung. My biggest regret was overburdening it with readings and such. If I ever get another crack at it we will do much more singing.
I say "if" but in a way we actually are doing it again, on the top of a local hill for the winter solstice. It will be fun...I hope.
It may be an odd thing for a bunch of New Englanders--accustomed to the frigid-though-globally-warming climate of our winter home--to reach to the warm climes of Hawaii for Christmas inspiration. Still, that is how it is. Somehow it works. That is the miracle of the holiday. It is also the miracle of music. Some things just speak to you, right?
Still, it is best for leading Carols. Here we are just this past Sunday on Advent 1!
Anyway, I hope you have a good Advent and I hope you play music. If you are unsure, maybe a uke would help. In the past I wrote a "buyers guide". This link gets you to an update of even older posts that can be accessed from it. The ukulele is a great way to get into music at any age. Get Caroling!
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.