One of my leisure-time projects for this year has been learning a bit of ukulele. So I’ve been watching a lot of videos of young ukulele players. And it suddenly occurred to me that many of the best young ukulele players are racially very diverse: Abe Lagrimas, Jr., Taimane Tauiliili Bobby Gardner, Rio Saito, Honoka Katayma. Yes, there are fabulous young white uke players, like Britni Paiva and Andrew Molina. But more seem to be non-white and/or mixed-race. Maybe this is just because the younger generation is majority non-white. Or maybe because the best uke players seem to come from Hawaii, which is racially very diverse. Of course, the most famous young ukulele player is white — that would be Billie Eilish (not that her ukulele playing is particularly good).
One of my favorite Youtube videos is titled “Guess: JAKE or Young KID? — Ukulele Challenge.”
If you know anything about the current ukulele scene, you’ll immediately figure out that “Jake” refers to Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso who is probably best known for his ukulele versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But his range as a musician goes far beyond rock and pop music. He has arranged jazz, classical, funk, and bluegrass music for the ukulele, and written his own compositions. He is known for playing complex music requiring amazing feats with both left and right hands.
The point of “JAKE or Young KID?” is simple: a panel of professional ukulele players listen to only the audio portion of a Youtube video of one of Jake’s arrangements or compositions. Sometimes it will be Jake playing, but sometimes it will be a child or young teen playing. The panelists have to figure out which it is. Given what a virtuoso player Jake is, this should be no problem, right?
Actually, the panelists regularly mistake Jake for the Young Kid, and the Young Kid for Jake. This says a lot for the high level of playing in the rising generation of ukulele players (it also says a lot about the popularity of the ukulele these days, that kids are willing to spend so much time learning the instrument). But it also makes us confront one of the nagging questions of our time: how do we know what is true and what is false? If a ten year old kid can play like Jake Shimabukuro, then what?
But the video doesn’t get into existential questions like that. It’s just hilarious. Although panelist Kalei Gamaio easily beats panelists Abe Lagrimas, Jr., and Aldrine Guerrero, each of the panelists makes hilarious mistakes.
Recently, I got introduced to two new ways of thinking.
First, I’ve been taking ukulele lessons. My teacher gave me a transcription of part of the Largo movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. As I play through that, it feels like my brain is being rewired. (“Rewired” is actually not the correct way to describe whatever is going on, but that metaphor — thinking as electronics — is common these days, so I’ll stick with it.) Or, more precisely, it’s not just my brain that’s being rewired: it’s my brain, my fingers, my ears and eyes — all of which are part of thinking — these are all being rewired.
Second, Carol’s father mentioned ones’ complement arithmetic. That sounded interesting, so I looked it up. On the CodeKraft blog, I found a good explanation of why ones’ complement arithmetic is useful. Then the Wikipedia article on ones’ complement provides a few good examples of how it works. This form of arithmetic is rewiring my brain in several interesting ways. The concept of signed zero is pretty interesting, though it doesn’t rewire my brain quite as much as, for example, when I learned about transfinite numbers.
I don’t know about you, but I feel as though I actually need to learn new and different ways of thinking. It keeps me fresh. Perhaps this is why I like improving my intercultural competence: this is another way to learn how to think in different ways.
I’ve picked up the ukulele again, but there’s not a lot of live ukulele happening in southeastern Massachusetts. So I’ve been getting my uke fix watching the weekly video podcast of Hawaii Music Supply, which you can find on their YouTube channel. Yes, they promote their high-end ukuleles. Yes, there’s a lot of pointless chit-chat, as on every podcast. But there’s also plenty of music, with some of the best of the newer ukulele players, sometimes playing songs and compositions they haven’t yet recorded. Players like Honoka, Neil Chin, Taimane Gardner, and many others, appear on the podcast and jam with regulars Corey Fujimoto and Kalei Gamaio.
For someone like me who’s trying to pick up the uke again, it’s really helpful to hear what really good ukulele playing sounds like. Plus ukulele players tend to be welcoming friendly people, and the ukulele itself is a gentle happy instrument. I put this podcast on while I’m cleaning the floor or doing laundry, and it cheers me right up even on a rainy windy winter day.
I’m two days late for World Ukulele Day. Sigh.
But here’s my playlist for this year’s World Ukulele Day. It’s mostly instrumental, except for two pieces. Many of the performers are from Hawai’i, of course, but I tried to make this about world ukulele by including players from Thailand, Japan, the US mainland, Germany, England, and Canada. Musical styles range from traditional Hawai’ian to jazz to pop to folk and beyond.
Bach’s Sonata in G minor, BWV 1001: IV, Presto performed by Corey Fujimoto (Hawai’i)
Corey Fujimoto may not be showy like some Big Name Uke Players, but his musicianship and technical prowess are top drawer. This Presto movement from a Bach sonata shows off both his technical prowess, and his excellent musical taste.
“Ukulele, I Love You” written and performed by Singto Numchok with the Ribbee Crew (Thailand)
The words to this song are both silly and sweet. The real joy in this video is watching five top-notch uke players, all doing different things with the same tune. If you have five really good uke players, you really don’t need any other instruments.
“Precious” performed by Ryo Natoyama (Japan)
Japan has some of the best uke players in the world, and Natoyama is one of Japan’s best players. Enough said.
“Spain” performed by Andrew Molina, Kalei Gamaio, and Neal Chin (Hawai’i)
Three younger uke players trading improvised solos based on Chick Corea’s jazz standard “Spain.”The musical interaction between the three players results in sheer joy.
“Ka Ipo Lei Manu” by Julia Kapiolani performed by John King (US mainland)
John King was trained as a classical guitarist in the campanella style, and he made his name in uke circles by performing classical music on the uke. His arrangements of melodies by Hawai’ian composers are less well known, but well worth listening to. Both his arrangements and his playing are understated, allowing the beauty of the melodies to shine through.
“Little Grass Shack” performed by Ohta-san, Herb Ohta Sr. (Hawai’i)
Ohta-san really was as great as his reputation would have him be. A delightful rendition of this well-known hapa haole tune.
“Babooshka” by Kate Bush performed by Elisabeth Pfeiffer (Germany)
Pfeiffer is another player who trained as a classical guitarist then switched to uke. She is probably best known for her uke method books, but her performances are well worth listening to as well.
“When There’s a Shine on Your Shoes” performed by George Harrison (England)
A video from the near end of Harrison’s life. Topnotch rhythm playing from a master guitarist and uke player. (Note the name “Keoki” on the headstock of the uke — that’s Harrison’s uke name.)
“Swallowtail Medley” performed by John King (US mainland) and James Hill (Canada)
James Hill is a ukulele virtuoso, and he sometimes suffers from virtuoso-itis, making music more complicated than it needs to be. Not in this video, where Hill plays second fiddle, er uke, to John King.
“Neptune’s Storm” performed by Taimane Tauiliili Bobby Gardner (Hawai’i)
Taimane Gardner is another incredible uke player who sometimes suffers from virtuoso-itis. But in this performance, the high level virtuosity she displays is well matched to the requirements of the music.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” performed by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (Hawai’i)
For my money, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was the best ukulele player ever. He doesn’t play with the virtuoso pyrotechnics of a James Hill, a Jake Shimabukuro, or a Taimane Gardner. But his playing is perfect. So is his singing.
For Carol and Ed.
Special bonus: Brittni Paiva playing Over the Rainbow
And I just had to add something by Sungha Jung — here’s his version of Pachelbel’s Canon in D
2/5: Updated with descriptions of the music, and a couple of screen grabs.
Three of us were in the office in the early afternoon. Each of us was feeling a little bit grumpy. Each of us was glad to be done with 2022, and hoping that 2023 will be a little bit better.
I told them my theory. Here we are, three years into a pandemic. Historically, pandemics have ended after a year and a half. But this pandemic is still going strong. I told them about this article I read that blamed the Ukraine war on the pandemic — Putin took advantage of societal chaos to launch his war.
I think I might even blame the pandemic for what happened in the U.S. House of Representatives today. The Republicans could not elect a Speaker of the House. Sure, we can blame it on right-wing extremists and ideologues. But I suspect part of the reason that people are voting right wing extremists and ideologues into office is that people are afraid and angry and doing stupid things like voting for people who can’t and won’t govern effectively.
It’s time to start playing ukulele again. I’ll never be a good ukulele player, but who cares. Pick up a ukulele, and you can’t help smiling. To quote George Harrison: “[The uke] is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”
Even if I can’t play it very well, a uke makes me feel better. Especially if it’s Carol’s uke, the one with blue flowers painted on it.
What we learned from our road trip so far:
Driving just five hours a day means you have two or more hours each day for a visit with a friend or relative, or a hike in a park or wildlife refuge. Much better than driving 8-10 hours a day, as we used to do.
When you go hiking, use insect repellent. Then check carefully for ticks before you get in the car.
The Best Western motel in Chamberlain, S.D., has really fast internet service.
Widespread acceptance of videoconferencing means you can do the following on a road trip: attend a civic meeting; lead a General Assembly workshop; attend a committee meeting; attend a professional conference.
Driving with a canoe tied on top of your car lowers your gas mileage by about 15%.
If you have a soprano ukulele in the car, whoever’s sitting in the passenger seat can play it while you sing together. Much better for staying awake than audio books.
After we ate breakfast, Carol and her aunt wanted to spend the morning talking about family. I went for a walk along the Auld-Brokaw bike path in Yankton. It was pleasant enough when you could feel the wind, but when I got to the Yankton high school, the path was in the lee of a hill, and there was no breeze at all, and it was quite hot. I was glad to get back to Carol’s aunt’s tree-shaded house. But she and her aunt were deep in family recollections, and I decided to visit the National Music Museum, which was just a few miles away.
The National Music Museum is housed on the campus of the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. I found a shady parking place down the street, and walked in. The pleasant woman at the front desk told me there was an audio tour available, but I said I only had an hour, and pretty much knew what I wanted to see. It took me a few minutes — I kept getting distracted by all the amazing and beautiful instruments on display — but pretty soon I found the mountain dulcimer made by J. E. Thomas in Kentucky in 1912. I had seen the instrument on their online checklist, and was pretty sure they would display an instrument by the traditional builder who had perhaps the greatest influence on the revival of the mountain dulcimer. Their instrument has some damage — it has a small crack in the soundboard, and one of the sides has separated from the soundboard at the lower bout — but it is still a good example of how Thomas made his instruments. I paid particular attention to the flat grain of the soundboard; the way the outer strings bore against the sides of the pegbox; the frets made of wire staples; the wooden nut and bridge. While well-made, this is a folk instrument, not a finely-crafted product of a luthier’s shop.
I also noticed a square piano made by John Osborne of Boston about 1824. I noticed this instrument because it had come from the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as a transfer in 2012. The Rotch-Jones-Duff House had been refining its collection while I lived in New Bedford, and presumably the curators either decided that this piano had no real connection to the house, or that they couldn’t adequately care for it. In any case, it has found a lovely home, and it now stands back to back with another square piano from a different Boston piano maker of the early nineteenth century, allowing people to compare subtle details of the cabinetry between two similar instruments.
I tore myself away from the National Music Museum. I could have spent several more hours there, looking at all kinds of instruments: novelty ukuleles; an original theremin; tools, molds, jigs, and benches from a guitar maker’s shop; the same from a luthier’s shop; clavichords; serpents; an epinette des Vosges; a trumpet marine; an 1850s Martin guitar; etc. On my way out, I talked briefly with the woman at the front desk, and she said the museum hosts weekly concerts when school is in session, occasionally using instruments, particularly keyboard instruments, from the collections. For a certain kind of person, it would be worth a special trip to Vermillion, South Dakota, to go to the museum and attend one of those concerts.
We left Carol’s aunt’s house in the middle of the day, had a quick lunch in Yankton, and began driving due south on U.S. Route 81 towards Interstate 80. We crossed the river into Nebraska, and the road climbed up out of the flat river basin into rolling plains. Along with the fields of corn and soybeans we have been seeing ever since Ohio, we started seeing fields with cattle, fields of hay being cut, and other fields of hay already cut and now being baled. The two-lane highway rolled through the green fields, a few trees lining the creek beds or surrounding isolated farm houses, the giant irrigation structures spraying water. We stopped in Norfolk for gas, and bought the local newspaper, the Norfolk Daily News; the front page stories included the following lead paragraphs: “Nebraska has a new tool for fighting wildfires — a single engine air tanker that arrived in Valentine earlier this week.” — and — “An Omaha trial lawyer is making his way through the state, announcing his candidacy for U.S. Senate.”
We stopped in Grand Island, Nebraska, not long before we got back on the interstate. Carol went to buy some fruit juice at the Azteca Market, and I went across the street to The Tattered Page, a used book store. As I was looking through the books, I heard some guys talking about experience points and hit points, and later I saw books for gamers. I walked up to the cashier to buy a copy of Bret Harte’s stories — a former library book that was indeed somewhat tattered — and said to the cashier, “I like the combination of used books and role playing games.” He smiled, and another guy sitting nearby said, without looking up, “Give the people what they want!”
On the interstate, I saw what looked like a bus in front of us. It was a bus, and the lighted destination sign in back read “SF.” The color scheme of the bus looked familiar. As we passed it, we saw that it carried a familiar logo reading MUNI, and other signage proclaimed that it was a hybrid electric vehicle that used biofuels. “Look at that bus!” I said to Carol. We laughed out loud to see a San Francisco bus on the highway in the middle of Nebraska. Later, when we got to our motel in Kearney, we discovered to our delight that the bus was spending the night here as well:
Yes, it’s not too early to start planning for Christmas. More specifically, it’s not too early to start planning if you want to have a Buy Nothing Christmas. A bunch of Canadian Mennonites have been promoting this concept through this Web site, and this Facebook page.
I like them because they’re not afraid to tell the truth about Christmas consumption as they see it, yet they’re not sanctimonious about it. And they play ukuleles in the snow. And they have funny posters.