Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 21, 2013

Ukulele Diplomacy

In his “Child’s Garden of Verses,” Robert Louis Stevenson tells us, “The world is so full of a number of things/I’m sure that we all should be happy as kings.”

As we know, this truism isn’t strictly true. The world is also filled with horror, pain and fear. It depends on where you are at any particular time. Billions of our fellow humans don’t have the opportunity to wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to have a GREAT day, and make the best of what this blessed realm can offer me,” because they inhabit war zones or live in dire poverty, or will spend their day hiding from marauding villains or have to walk five miles to carry water from the nearest source.

Some lucky few of us have the boundless opportunity to choose each day whether to dwell on the dudgeon and dread that fill our newspapers and TV screens and Internet feeds, or whether to seek joy and hope. One day this week, in a life blessed with almost unlimited opportunities, I had yet another chance to do the latter.

The local Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District partnered with AMUSE, the Palos Verdes Music Center, to host ten visiting students from Xi’an, China. Those young adults spent a few weeks here, learning about American culture. They studied technology, art, and, thanks to support from the Peninsula Education Foundation, they also studied western music.

How would the organizers get high school students who aren’t musicians to appreciate music from another extremely different culture? After all, no teenager anywhere in the world wants to sit in a classroom listening to lectures along the lines of “Western Music Appreciation.” These kids could’ve stayed home and studied for their college entrance exams, instead. Besides, the American musical idiom is alien to people raised in an Asian musical tradition, ranging across a daunting number of styles, from native jazz and blues, embracing the classical European tradition, and touching bluegrass, country and western and hip-hop.

The answer to this conundrum? Give ’em ukuleles!

With four easy-to-master strings, the humble uke, even for a child — or someone who’s grown up in another musical culture — provides an easy path to strum some fundamental chords that shape the American musical idiom.

I attended a recital that the Chinese students performed at the end of their stay. They took the stage overlooking the school lawn under a brilliant California sky. They were directed by T.J., my own guitar instructor, who’s also an accomplished ukulele performer and teacher.

IMG_0590 ukes to the stage

They didn’t just strum their ukes; they SANG American standards that included “Five Foot Two,” “Oh, When the Saints Go Marching In,” “City Sidewalks,” that ukulele standard, “Little Grass Shack,” and their piece de resistance, sung beautifully in charming style, “You Are My Sunshine.”

IMG_0597 chinese ukuleles

It was delightful. They played in tune on those alien western sounds. They played on the beat of the unfamiliar American 4/4 rhythm. Granted, they struggled with the lyrics in the insanely difficult English language, but they PERFORMED.

These bright young people learned to shape chords on their ukes that made sounds not familiar in their culture and sang the English language words of the songs:

You are my sunshine, My only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are gray.

Only think, my friends, what the world would be like if instead of attempting to violently convert the other citizens of the world to one’s particular point of view by killing or imprisoning them, our fellow humans invested some time teaching them to share one another’s music and, in turn, learning the music of other cultures. The prospect boggles the mind.

What if it became a movement? The Ukulele Revolution!

What if, one at a time, two at a time, ten at a time, we all took to carrying our ukuleles with us?

What if, a few years from now, in airport lounges, in bus terminals, in youth hostels and hotel lobbies, in community centers and city parks, small groups of people began recognizing one another by the small gig bags they carried. After a glance of acknowledgment, they’d pull out their ukes, turn to one another and say, “Do you know ‘This Land is Your Land’?” And they’d begin, tentatively at first, then sending out a living sound that would ring across the anonymous airport spaces and the empty waiting rooms and the deserted central city plazas and the blasted wastelands of our benighted world, and they’d SING,

This land is your land, This land is my land.

A revolution, indeed. The RevolUKEtion!

At first, there will be obstacles. Everyone passing through airport screening will be pulled out of line to have those suspicious little gig bags searched. After a time, though, security people will recognize a ukulele gig bag and wave the owners through. Slowly, inevitably, the tone of respect will set in: “Ah, another one of the ukulele people. Glad to have you here,” they’ll say. “Say, do you know “You’re Nobody’s Sweetheart Now?”

For a while, of course, our Chinese friends may not be encouraged to sing ALL the verses of “This Land is Your Land,” like, say, this one:

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office, I seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

But, finally, as war passes away and differences dissolve, there will be only the sound of sweet strumming from ukuleles, big bass and baritone units, beautifully sweet tenors, and even the rare, floating high notes of the occasional alto uke, as they blend in a chorus:

You are my sunshine, My only sunshine ….

Well, maybe it won’t happen like that. After all, a single exchange program of a few students from China visiting California, and a few from California spending time in China won’t change the world. It’ll take more than that. There’ve been exchange programs for many decades, but we continue to enslave and oppress and kill one another around the world. However, not every exchange program has involved music. Perhaps they should. Maybe we should focus more on the things that can connect us, rather than the things that divide us.

No, the RevolUKEtion won’t happen. Our new Chinese friends will return to their city, recognized around the world as the home of the eight thousand terra cotta warriors; a place that is very, very different from America. But, maybe some day, in the last years of this century, when I’m dust and not even my dreams are remembered, an old woman sitting in an apartment in a high-rise apartment somewhere in Xi’an or Chengdu or Nanchang, or some other city not even yet built will tell her grandchildren about the time she visited her friends in America. From the cupboard, she’ll pull the well-worn ukulele she carried back from that adventure and, strumming the old strings, she’ll sing in a strange, foreign language,

I wanna go back to my little grass shack
In Kealakekua, Hawaii
I want to be with all the kanes and wahines
That I knew long ago.

I can hear the old guitars a-playing
On the beach at Ho’onaunau
I can hear the old Hawaiian saying
“Komo mai no kaua ika hale welakahao”

Now, everybody!

“You Are My Sunshine” credits are disputed; some credit Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell; also suggested, Oliver Hood

“My Little Grass Shack” by Bill Cogswell, Tommy Harrison, Johnny Noble

“This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie. Thanks, Woody. You believed music could change the world, and it still may.

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Responses

  1. Great post Brad. All music lovers, and non-music lovers, should read this. I tried to reply on UWS’s but have forgotten my password. Yuck. Dad

    ________________________________

    Like

  2. Great one, Brad! Someone once brought a ululele on one of my early girl scout camping trips. It was so much fun to play. Very satisfying for a beginner. This piece made me want to go out and buy one. xoxox

    Like


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