Uke School Days
Last week, after playing Christmas in Hawaii, a swingy little number I looked up to see my neighbor miming whacking me over the head with his uke. "Solo! Solo!" shouted the women to left. "We've got another solo player!" I turned bright red and put the uke down. I guess the rehearsals are going well. "NO WAY, " I stated. "NO WAY." But not so secretly, I am very very very flattered. Very.
Last night I went to Llyle's place to practice our set. It's all about the timing when you play with others. I'm changing chords where she isn't, she's changing chords where I'm not... it's tough. In a big group you don't hear it as clearly when the players have their timing off. But when it's just you and one other player, oh, you can't miss the places you miss.
She's got quite a collection of ukes in her place. Two banjos, a Martin, a pretty little baritone, a Mexican thing I can't remember the name of, and a resonator. I loved playing that resonator it sounds and feels great. And it's shiny so you feel like a rhinestone hapa-haole cowboy when you play it. It's loud too, boy howdy, though not as loud as her little banjo. That thing is full of twang.
I'm practicing with the CD Rodney made for us, too. I can just make it through the complicated little transition in Nani Lei O Hawaii, but things get a little muddy right in the middle. Still, I have another whole week. I've made it this far. It would probably do me good to stop playing for a day to let my fingers rest, but for some reason I can't put the damn thing down.
LLyle was a gracious hostess and fed me pie and tea and let me noodle around with all her ukes. What a bunch of gear heads all these uke lovers are. I mean, all 'we' uke lovers are? She asked me what I was going to get next, though with the recent acquisition of my Kamaka 8, I'm not sure I need anything else. Though I really did enjoy that resonator. I'm picturing an showy engraved model...
It's worth noting that my ukulele obsession has taken me place I would never otherwise have gone. I never went to Shoreline before Uncle Rod's Uke Conference. And yesterday found me in a tiny dance studio in Burien. The bedroom communities of Seattle have been previously unknown to me. I'm urban at the heart and I stay away from the burbs, but when the master calls, you get in the Tercel and head out of town to neighborhoods where you see the planes landing or where you can get a taco that will break your heart.
I'm booked for the next handful of Saturdays as I learn, with 8 others, how to play the songs that make up Rodey Lopez's set at the upcoming Hawaiian Festival in Puyallup (another seldom visited destination). My hands are stiff from yesterday's two and a half hours of picking, strumming, fingering, note scribbling, and making twangy mistakes. We're playing nine songs, the Rodney Lopez strummers are (not our real name) on November 8th at an undisclosed location.
I'm alternating between terror and glee. I love learning this new songs and this new style. Rod Sr. has a jazz based style with sweet little transitions and relatively complicated four note chords. It's a stretch for me though I feel pretty good about getting my head - and hands - around the nine songs in the next three weeks. A few of them are pretty easy, so those I can just play from the cheat sheets. But some of them are going to take practice, practice, practice. I'm going to try to hook up with a fellow strummer in Seattle this week to work through some of the hard stuff.
Everyone is full of Aloha and good cheer. Our teacher radiates good humor about our obvious inexperience and his confidence in our potential to pick this stuff up makes me, at least, want to be successful. His invitation to include this handful of amatuers in his set is so generous that I don't want to disappoint him by screwing it up. (In fact, I should be practicing Right Now.)
No, I mean it. I'm totally done now. It just happened by accident. I just sort of stumbled across it on eBay Deutschland. They're usually over 900 dollars so when I saw this one listed at well under the standard price well, I couldn't really just let it sit there and go to someone who doesn't know what it is. I did set a reasonable bar for it. I wasn't going to pay list price, no sir. And I wasn't going to even pay the least bit of attention to the Ovation that the guy also had listed, or to his pineapple that he insists is Hawaiian built, even though Google leaves one with the strong implication that the pineapple builder in question lives in Marin County, California, NOT in Hawaii at all.
I'm just saying that it wasn't like I was shopping for real. And anyway, I can't deal with eBay because it's just too stressful. Which is why I asked Julius to look in to it. And why there are now seven, count them, seven ukuleles. When you think about what we got, it's really not that much money. We have 32 strings. 5 sound holes (the banjos don't have them). More than 84 frets.
I'm a little concerned that this makes me a 'collector.' But I don't have them for the sake of having them, I play them. All of them. I still play the baritone, the first one I got, and the banjo goes with me to the Halau because it's really too loud to play at home. And the Royal Aloha, the one I got that really pushed me over in to the full frenzy of ukulele madness, well, that one sits on the couch and I really do play it every single day. I play it while I'm watching TV and reading email and waiting for my spuds to be done baking. Hell, I played it while the coffee was brewing this morning. Sometimes I play it in the car. Seriously.
This is a lot of rationalizing. I know my uke associates would understand my abnormal acquisitiveness. Plus, there is no denying that it was an outrageous deal. They normally cost right around the neighborhood of 1000 dollars and this was nowhere near that. So how could I pass it up? How could I? This is not in character for a person who drives a 18 year old Toyota. What the hell is wrong with me?
You'll be wanting to know what I bought, won't you? It's a Kamaka 8 string tenor. I don't deserve it, to be sure. Let's hope I can turn out to be worthy of owning it. At least in my hands it will be a lot closer to Hawaii then it is now, in the heart of Berlin.
More rationalization. I know.
Julius sent me an IM on Friday saying “Oops.” An oops with Julius usually means he bought something silly and this particular oops is no exception.
Julius is unbelievably supportive of the whole uke initiative; you might even call him a sponsor. He did hand me the 30 dollars I needed to take home the Royal Aloha. He followed that up by buying me a mid-range uke to play while I’m housed at the foreign office over the winter, a little mahogany number called a Kiluea. And he ‘oopsed’ yesterday when he turned out to have won a George Formby banjo uke on eBay yesterday. “Stop shopping for ukuleles!” I told him. “Oh, and, um, THANKS!” This latest accidental acquisition brings the count of ukuleles up to six – four here in Seattle and two at the foreign office.
When I was up at the Halau on Monday night, Auntie Gloria asked me how the uke classes were going; how the playing is going. “I LOVE MY UKULELE!” I told her. “But I have a problem. I kind of want a six string. It’s like a sickness.” “Oh, honey,” she sympathized, “I KNOW. You play my old six-string tonight. Then, what’s going to happen is this. You get used to the six-string, and then you’re going to want an eight.”
While I got suckered in to the beautiful rich sound of Auntie’s gorgeous Kamaka, she played my Royal Aloha. And played it some more. And then some more. After about half an hour, she looked up at me. “Oh, I’m sorry!” “No, no, go ahead, it’s a nice little uke, isn’t it?” She told me I should change the strings on it, something I have tried to do a few times, but the store is always out of stock.
George showed up with his uke in a rain spattered cardboard box and Uncle Rod, in spite of his broken hand, led us through a whole series of Hawaiian songs. He was getting over a cold and sounding a little froggy, but still played with gusto, teaching us the tune to a handful of traditional songs and some newer traditional style tunes. I love the sound of that stuff but when I look at the music I have no idea what the melody is supposed to be. We play mostly from lyrics with chord notations, not from full on musical notation, so even if I was able to read music well enough to pick out a tune, it just wouldn’t be possible because the staff isn’t there. Still, we played one of the songs through a few times, enough so that I can remember the tune and it turns out I have the sheet music for it at home. Now I can try to pick through the tune while having a vague idea of how it is meant to sound. Hard stuff.
Yesterday I sat on the couch for a good chunk of the evening working through a transposition of ‘I Will Survive.’ I’ve got it to sound almost like a tragic fado song, especially when I play it with the flamenco strum – though that’s a really hard thing to maintain. I’m also playing it with Pekelo’s four finger picking style, but the key is a little too minor to make it sound like a Hawaiian song. Still, it’s pretty fun. I’ve also been working on Bob Dylan’s ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ and Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This.’
Then I did a little shopping on eBay. You know, just to check the price on the six-strings.
Okay, uke school is over and I'm pretty sad about it, but my heart is still full of Aloha. Here's why. The end of uke school doesn't mean the end of uke playing, no sir, it's just the beginning. I was happy to bundle up all things uke related to head over the West Seattle Senior Center for SUPA today. A room full of uke players, strumming away, stumbling together through the rough bits, singing loud even when they can't sing, well, it's all makes for loads of ukulele happiness, of course.
And the Lopez family played a couple of songs for us, with Rod Lopez Jr. playing some incredible double strumming on his gorgeous Kamaka uke. They just sound great. Jr. sat in front of me and when I asked him about his sweet sounding axe, he handed it to me and let me noodle with it for a sec. "It's a trophy," he said. And it is - he won it at a hula contest in Hawaii and it's a fine, fine, thing.
Then later, he turned around and looked at me and said this: "You strum really good!" This from the guy who won
his ukulele for his skill. From the guy who mastered crazy double strum. This from the guy with the gorgeous koa six string. He says to me, "You sound great." Me and the Royal Aloha, we blushed. We didn't really know WHAT to say. What we should have said was, "That's a hell of a compliment coming from YOU!" but we were to flustered. We turned pink and said thank you. At least we remembered to say THAT.
Rod Lopez Senior, it turns out, is looking for a handful of accomplished strummers to back him at his gig at the upcoming Hawaiian festival. I am SO there.
Last Day: Uke School Finale!
Auntie Gloria and Uncle Bill just got back from Hawaii and they were all hopped up on Aloha and Ukulele Love. Apparently we're part of a third wave of ukulele rennaissance and they were super psyched for us to be there, learning their music, playing their instrument, sitting around their halau, and being part of the resurgence of the uke. They told us that Roy Sakuma
, one of the Hawaiian uke masters who lends his name to the KoAloha Uke, has 800 students! 800! Gloria and Bill think that the uke is on a roll and they wanted to say thank you to us, the first class of the First Annual Ukulele Conference, for being part of it.
Chris, our badass theory teacher was there and helped us through some review, and Kyle gave a presentation on the history of Hawaiian Music, and we sang and ate fried chicken and sang some more. All the Uncles and Auntie and Cousin played for us, and I mean, really played for us, and sang in harmony. Then we played and sang some more and Kyle taught us a few more tricks for the uke, and then, we played and sang some MORE.
Cue Pomp and Circumstance, Hawaiian style. Uncle Rod gave us uke school graduation diplomas and shook our hands. Kath invited us to the island of Vashon for uke school reunion on October. Tom took off, but before he did he told me how much he enjoyed playing with me. Uncle Ben headed out - he's off to Hawaii with his wife for a two week vacation - but before he left, we played Happy Birthday for him.
When it was just Anita (a hula student as well as one of the uke) and I left, my posse showed up. Erin, Terry, Knox, and Nia, arrived. Uncle Rod tried to press ukuleles on all of them - at that point, there were a LOT of ukes lying around. We sang a few songs and then I asked if we could do the Hukilau song. Uncle Rod asked Anita to teach everyone how to do the Hukilau hula. They're good sports, my posse, and they all got up and followed Anita through the hula while Uncle Rod, Uncle Gregg and I played and sang. It was the perfect culmination of the week.
When I left Kyle gave me the hang loose sign and Uncle Rod gave me a big hug and thanked me for coming. We headed off to Knox's house for an impressive spread of Hawaiian BBQ salmon, Hawaiian spanikopita, Hawaiian white wine.. well, you get the picture.
You tell me. Am I off to the islands tomorrow for more Aloha? Your guess is as good as mine. I do have this to say for certain: Learn to play the uke. I'm tellin' ya. You just gotta.
Day 10: Fingerpicking workshop
"You guys sound just like Brudda Iz! When Auntie hears you, she's going to hire all of you to play for the Halau!"
I am sure that I have mentioned that my teachers have been unfailingly positive. But our teacher last night takes it, really. Pekelo said that we had moved on through Uke 101 all the way to Uke 404 in the hour and a half that he spent with him. I'm a sucker for that kind of positive feedback, but when you see this understated guy smile and tell a room full of novices that they are covering ground about four times faster than he'd planned, you totally believe him. You've heard the false notes and the lost timing, you've heard yourself - and the guy next to you - drop the tune and pick it up again four measures later. But you still believe him. Because look at that smile! It's totally genuine, you believe him.
Still, as if to remind us that we are just getting started, Pekelo played Over the Rainbow for us. Wow.
You can tune your G string high or low when you play Hawaiian style uke. Pekelo plays the low G tuning. My little soprano is tuned to a high G. Most of the people I've met who play tenor tune the G low. If you've got a six string, you get both the high and the low G. If you're Uncle Ben, you don't leave the house without a couple of extra ukuleles. What this means is that last night I got to play Uncle Ben's 60's Martin tenor for the duration of the class. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to let me do that, since I wasn't sure I was going to want to give it back.
Because I had the tenor, I let the guy that showed up late play my soprano. I love the way people are so willing to let you play their uke. When I asked Kath how that new Mele was treating her, she immediately offered to let me take it for a spin. I'm starting to feel like you get to be the caretaker of a uke, but it's really a community object. Maybe that's crazy, but I've been able to play some really nice ukes that way.
Yesterday I was at the place in town that stocks the widest variety of ukes. They had two Uke Brand ukes on the floor and I played one of them, the little ropebound one. I think it might be the nicest uke I've played yet. I'm wondering how I can justify my need for another uke, this time a concert sized model with the low G. Uke Brand ukes are not cheap, the model I would like to have is just under 800 dollars. I wrote to the Uke Brand people asking them about the concert sized axe. After all, I have a birthday coming. Technically, I'm supposed to get a sports car and trophy boyfriend on this birthday, but I'm really happy with the husband I have and my car works fine. A trophy guy might not get better with age, but a nice ukulele gets warmer and sweeter with time. Plus, I'd like to have something really nice to share with my uke friends.