Ukulele For All of Us

MightyUke.jpgThis Saturday I spent some time with Little Boy Blue and a kajillion different instruments at Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum. Now, you'll remember that I'd been to the MIM before and thought it was pretty fabulous. And while I hoped to see a few instruments (and bang on a few in the hands-on area) -- and we did, in fact, manage to do both -- my primary goal was to see Mighty Uke, a documentary on the resurgence of ukulele over the past ten years or so.

The movie itself is good, not great, especially at first, where the brief history lesson feels a little rushed and not quite in-depth enough and where the paeans to how the ukulele brings people together don't quite feel totally earned. But to this relative ukulele amateur, I think they did a good job hitting a lot of the big names in the resurgence (Jake Shimabukuro and Jim Beloff) and introduced me to other names worth exploring.

LangleyEnsemblesm.jpgThe movie earns its stripes in its last third or so as it turns its attention to the Langley Ukulele Ensemble, a youth ukulele orchestra based in a Vancouver-area suburb. Because as a viewer you're permitted to follow the Ensemble as they perform at a school assembly, then at concert hall in Nova Scotia, then in Hawaii, you start to care about the group. It doesn't hurt that this group of mostly high-school-aged students sound great, both on their ukes as well as vocally. A point made earlier in the film, that playing music together can strengthen bonds between people, is made much more effectively here. All of a sudden, this silly little movie about the history of this simple little instrument becomes a little more powerful, highlighting the power of music-making to change lives and communities. The leader of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble says something like, "Teach a kid how to play a uke, and I'll guarantee they'll be well-adjusted, do well, and be fun to around." Between that and another singer-songwriter who makes her living playing the uke and who said, "Ukulele players are like everybody else -- well, maybe we drink a little more beer," those seem like very good reasons to make music with others.

[I'd also point out that if those are familiar attitudes, there's a reason for that. The ukulele community, which takes its music seriously but doesn't take itself too seriously, is very reminiscent of the family music community. It's one of the characteristics of the genre that I think helps keep people -- listeners and musicians -- from getting burnt out.]

Heidi_Band.jpgAnd then, after the film, Heidi Swedberg (who'd introduced the movie) led the theatre in a group jam. Now, I should mention that the theatre was full for the movie. Not in a three-quarters, lots of seats near the top sort of way. No -- full. And most of them, like me, had brought a ukulele to play along with the jam. Little Boy Blue was particularly excited when the band came out -- he kept asking me when they would be there. And Swedberg and her band -- she called them her "special sauce" -- sounded really good. Lyrics and chords were projected on the screen above the stage, and there was just enough instrumental variety to keep it interesting if you weren't playing along (or if you were limited to, say, four or five chords). Swedberg picked a nice set of standards and slightly more off-kilter choices (yay for "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," a song reintroduced to millions by her cousin John Linnell, half of They Might Be Giants). On a Saturday afternoon that was pretty miserable otherwise thanks to events that threatened to rip apart communities, it was nice to be part of a group that created community.

I'd like to play more music this year. Hopefully the memories of Saturday afternoon at the MIM and the good feelings it engendered will linger and remind me why it's important that I do, both with my kids and with others.