The words ukulele and revolution are found together quite frequently these days, and there’s a hint of humour in the contrasted terms. However, we really are in the midst of a revolution. Even if you don’t play ukulele, around you there are hundreds who do, and they are a movement, a tide, an agent for change disguised by the innocence of a small, happy-sounding musical instrument.
It’s easy for outsiders to dismiss ukulele groups and individual players as an adorable, or even irritating phenomenon, but they miss the point. It’s only when you pick up a ukulele and learn to play it, join a group and/or perform, that the door is opened to a multitude of physical, intellectual, emotional and social rewards.
There is vast scientific data confirming the cognitive benefits of learning and playing music, as well as an increasing understanding of the positive emotional effects. Socially, it is not only a way to become involved in a (locally and internationally) supportive network, but to put into practice interpersonal skills like cooperation and the working through of differences and challenges. There is also the quasi-magical bliss bomb of playing music with others! Self-expression, humour, tolerance, enjoyment and giving to others rounds out the ukulele playing experience.
To live in a largely peaceful, affluent nation characterised by freedom and opportunity is indeed a privilege. However, vast technological, occupational and social change has left increasing numbers of people in nations like these, disconnected, in a community sense.
Despite how it may sometimes appear, the vast success of the human species has not relied upon wars and conquests, but cooperation, communication, and the curiosity which leads to discovery and invention. Things like mental and emotional health and achieving goals end up better when we work together. For at least 40,000 years, music has helped build and maintain these vital human connections, whether it be during a tribal ceremony, at a concert, in a church, at a music festival or a singalong around the piano.
From the 1950s when recorded music was becoming affordable for consumers and popular music the domain of young artists, a huge corporate music industry sprang up and for the first time, cracks started to show in our community-based connections to music and to each other. Money, fame, broadcasting, and performances with amplified instruments and vocals was building a barrier between performers and audiences. This wasn’t the separation of audiences from professional musicians performing complex orchestral or jazz pieces, but audiences being separated from their own music - popular music, including folk, blues and rock.
A constant striving for more and better has since seen us enter the digital age, bringing some interesting ironies. We’re potentially ‘connected’ to information, or anyone else in the world with a device and Wi-Fi, but that ‘connection’ can be made without any face-to-face interaction. Digital delivery has been a major disrupter of the music industry, and for all but the biggest acts which are underpinned by corporate music entities*, concerts and merchandise (including vinyl records) are major income streams for performers, and not recorded music, which is now either very inexpensive, available free via various social media, or pirated.
Since 2002, one of those social media platforms, YouTube, has been a game changer for aspiring artists and pivotally, for anyone with the desire (and heaven help us, the expertise) to share their musical skills, knowledge and performances - whether that be on a stage, a street corner, or a chair in the living room.
Enter exhibit one, the ukulele. All the ingredients were right: small size, ease of learning for non-musicians, low cost, a huge population of baby boomers looking for their next challenge, somewhat fractured local communities, easily accessible digital resources and information about get-togethers, festivals and other players, and the clincher - ukulele is an ensemble instrument.
Guitar isn’t an ensemble instrument, piano isn’t, drums can be but usually aren’t. Brass? Imagine forty trumpeters playing in a club bistro. Violins are, but they’re more expensive, much harder to learn and you can’t use them to strum the chords for You Are My Sunshine. Your voice is, and that’s why singing goes hand in hand with ukulele playing.
In addition, enough time had elapsed since Tiny Tim single-handedly destroyed the validity of the ukulele as a musical instrument, to reinstate - with the help of Jake Shimabukuro, James Hill, a battalion of Hawaiians, and Canadian school students - its rightful place in mass music-making.
Everyone learns a musical instrument for different reasons, but when we get together to sing and play ukulele, we’re making a rich contribution to the fundamentals of our human beingness. It's here to stay.
* Up to 90% of the global music market is accounted for by just five corporations: EMI Records, Sony, Vivendi Universal, AOL Time Warner and BMG. BBC World Service