11.2.14

The Ukulele Is Not The Happiest Instrument In The World...Rant!

News for you (and about time for another rant):  the ukulele is NOT the happiest instrument in the world. Or rather, the ukulele world is really no different from any other instrument.... shock!..... horror!......burn the witch!




Steady on....

Why do I say that? "Hang on Baz - you live and breathe the ukulele?" Well, it is less of a sharp personal opinion, and more an observation on which I would be delighted if you told me your views and experiences. I'm not here to tell you what should and should not be, just my opinion. What I observe may not be something you agree with and that is cool, but I think I have some arguments to put forward.. So what is this all about? Well, as you start to explore the world of the ukulele, online and off, you will almost certainly come across comments such as...

"the ukulele is such a happy instrument",

and,

"nobody is unfriendly in the uke world..."

Recognise those? Have you made those statements? When I started playing I said them myself. Well time for a reality check. In my experience, both are plain wrong. And further, I now fail to comprehend quite why people can become so obsessed with saying so. I'm not trying to put a downer on things though, I love the ukulele and many many of the people who live in this proclaimed 'uke world'. It's just not quite so black and white.

Let us take a look at the first statement first. There are a couple of ways of looking at this, but let us  consider the physical first of all. The ukulele is just a musical instrument. Yep, that's it. It isn't mystical or magic, it's a box with some strings on it with a neck for making the notes work. It is a tool for making music in the same way as a trombone is, as a piano is, or as a hurdy gurdy is. Nothing more and nothing less. The concept that an instrument can be 'happy' or' sad' (or, whilst we are here, just plain 'meh') confuses me, as surely the impact the instrument has on our senses comes from the style of music that is being played on it. A piano can create the most haunting, sad music imaginable, but equally has been responsible for some of the happiest ever made. The same goes for most if not all instruments.  Why is the ukulele any different? Personally I like to play both sad and happy songs on the uke, and perhaps that is why I am a little different. Perhaps.... But I think there is more going on here.

To consider this further, we can go back to the uke origins in Hawaii, and that history that people seem to connect with so much. There is certainly a lot to be happy about with Hawaiian music (by its very nature), and also perhaps a lot to be happy about in living on a set of of paradise islands (although, beware the phrase 'the grass is always greener' - like anywhere, Hawaii has its problems too - you just don't see them in the ubiquitous tourism shots..). The 'Aloha spirit' they call it. Personally, I live in the mostly wet  and grey north west of England, and it can sometimes be hard to summon that spirit on certain days and it doesn't necessarily help if I pick up a musical instrument. Any musical instrument. And while I am at it, I think that it is also hellishly stereotypical to assume that all music from Hawaii is 'happy' or 'jolly' as a dip into their musical history will show that they too cherish the sadder and more poignant songs - like pretty much ALL musical heritages. So perhaps the 'happy instrument' tag is taken from a longing for that Aloha spirit from those in less sunny climes rather than the instrument itself? Or should I say, a longing for the Aloha spirit of our imaginations or memory? Over here in the UK, there is a common 'look' amongst  a lot of ukulele clubs and bands of Hawaiian shirts, straw summer hats, perhaps garlands of flowers. Festivals are not unknown to deck out their 'theme' with a Hawaiian look. Why is that? Are players longing to cling on to a look or feel that is, in the main, alien to them? Is there an assumption that by doing so makes everything so god damn happy? Of course, if your club does this and it makes you happy then I am naturally pleased for you, but would be unhappy if you took off the flowers? I personally don't dig the Hawaiian thing myself. Before you complain, I am not saying that I don't like Hawaii, their people, their heritage, their shirts or THEIR Aloha Spirit, I just find it a little odd to be trying to create some artificial connection with that community just because I play a ukulele, and perhaps particularly because I am from England, not Waikiki. (Incidentally - one style of uke that has a very strong following is the George Formby Society, and I rarely see them wearing garlands of flowers, yet they seem to get along just fine!)

(I don't have anything against Hawaiian shirts either, think I might own one somewhere, but is it the shirt that is making the performance 'happy' or the uke? And as for those top class fine performers out there who like to flaunt them...  you are excused!)

Another angle on the physical is the very noise the uke makes. In the soprano form particularly, there is no doubting that a staccato strum can be lively, jaunty and uplifting, perhaps even 'happy'. It is also undoubtedly linked to the 'Island sound', but unless you are living on the Islands or it is part of your deep rooted family tradition, I put that down to endless ukulele backed advertising making the connection that anything else. You know the sort of thing - the very boxes that many ukes come in are adorned with tropical flowers. But having seen people perform on a soprano and play songs like 'Strange Fruit' or countless other sad, mournful tunes and totally nailed them, it is worth remembering that the ukulele is more versatile than just something to strum and grin with whilst pretending you have your toes in the sand. Heck, one of the most played songs at ukulele clubs up and down the UK is Folsom Prison Blues, hardly a barrel of laughs of a song..  So for me, sound wise, the ukulele CAN be made to sound happy, but I still firmly believe it can be made to sound sad too, and pretty much everything else in between. As such, I am not so sure that the theory holds that this is an inherently happy instrument at all. It's just a ukulele...

You may say that music is intended to make people happy. Sure, I would agree with that in part, but lots of music is written to make people sad too. And to make people think, and to make people a whole range of other emotions, sometimes all at once. The point is, music is intended to MOVE you, to generate a reaction, a feeling or a response. 'Happy' is only part of what it can do.

Let move on to the social side of things and the way ukulele players interact - is THAT what is so happy? This is something I see commented on more and more - that the ukulele 'community' is a happy place, that ukulele players are the best people on the planet, that you will never hear a cross word from any of them, that the uke world is FAR more welcoming than, say, the guitar community, and so on and so on. Well, it's a very nice idea that this little instrument can create such a well being in the player that enables them to rise up to be the friendliest person on the block, but anyone who spends any time amongst social media will know that this is also dead wrong.

Please don't get me wrong, I am not choosing to single out the ukulele community here in particular, but any sort of community with human interaction follows this model, quite simply because when you get together with a bunch of like minded individuals, human nature shines through. And, as much as we don't like to admit it, human nature can stink at times. Sure, group gatherings will, on the whole be happy things - I see enough photos of club meetings to show just how enjoyable they are, and I think that is great. But that isn't the full story. What else goes on in uke-land?

Well, I personally know several ukulele players who have been so offended by others in the uke community that they have (at best) shut themselves away from interaction and (at worst) have turned their back on the instrument altogether.  Real happy huh?

I could go on...

I've now heard of a couple of examples of performers who found that 'someone' with a grudge called a venue they was booked to play by someone impersonating them and trying to cancel it. Only this week a page on Facebook was brought to my attention that seemed to be attacking some very well respected uke players, and very publicly too. And this wasn't attacking in the sense of 'I don't like their music' (that for me isn't an attack at all), but these were abusive down to the base level of attacking peoples physical appearances. My own band had some bad mouthing brought to our attention last year via a chain of emails that we were not meant to see, and I have removed myself from certain communities having had one to many doses of the foul mouthed abuse. And all this from other ukulele players - 'the happy community'....   Before you say I should get a thicker skin, or grow a pair, I can deal with it. In fact I can smile and shrug it off, but many people can't and can become quite upset by things. These things really happen, and whilst it is just life, I don't like it, as I don't like bullying. And because you pick up a ukulele doesn't mean it doesn't or won't happen.

The online world is a strange place, but it does mirror life in many ways with the added attraction that people can hide behind the keyboard. This only seems to make the attacks more vicious. For me though, I still don't think social media is itself the problem, I think it just magnifies the inner thinking of the perpetrators (bullies deep down in many cases), and whether it is about the ukulele or their favourite toaster, it matters little to them so long as they are ranting. There are online groups out there who take great pleasure in slagging off other uke players, or other peoples views, other peoples instrument choices like it is a sport. This isn't just 'trolling',  this is a concerted effort by many in harmony with each other. Please don't get me wrong - I don't personally want to live in a land of blue skies and zero disagreements, disagreements are good and healthy, but outright aggression isn't. For the sake of balance of course, there are also online uke groups who seem to tolerate no disagreement whatsoever and I think that is as unhealthy in the other direction to the point of being saccharine sweet and artificial. Oh well, perhaps I can't win...

And aside from those who like to be mean for the fun of it, there is a growing movement of those who like to attack based on the 'I am better than you' or 'my uke is better than yours'. This is something I've seen a lot in the guitar community, but guess what? It's there with ukes too.

So in summary, if you spend any time discussing the instrument with other 'fans' then you are sure enough going to come across those encounters that fly directly in the face of this concept that the 'uke community is the friendliest in the world'. So why do people keep saying everything is sweetness and light?

Offline, are things the same? Well, it is difficult for me to comment, but if you tell me that your uke group has never had a disagreement to the point of somebody being upset I would be extremely surprised. It's natural, and that damned four string box of tricks you have chosen to play is neither to blame, nor is it going to make you a nice person overnight. The person does that.

Let's balance things out a little and look on the bright side. Those who know me personally will (I think!) know that I am generally a 'happy chappie', like a giggle and enjoy the interactions I have with uke players enormously. I will stand up and disagree where I think something is wrong, but I would like to think I don't do so by having to resort to verbal abuse.

The ukulele world is indeed a fun place to interact in the vast majority of cases. More so than in some other musical instrument communities that I have been involved with will you find those players at the top end willing to help and support beginners and a general feeling of 'one-ness' amongst players. I have made some terrific friends through playing this instrument - and I don't just mean acquaintances, I mean those people who physically go out of their way to help and support you (you know who you are - you are all wonderful!). Uke festivals are great things to visit, and (perhaps) because people are on their best behaviour (or because it is face to face) they are always friendly and I would recommend you visit one. There is much to be happy and thankful about.

So why the hell am I ranting? Well, the concept of an instrument being 'happy' in its very nature is something that irritates me a little as I think it misses the full range of what the ukulele can really do. I personally think the constant tag of 'happy' (as nice as it would be for the whole world to be happy) can act to hold back the instrument from being taken fully seriously. It certainly isn't uncommon for those who despise the uke to refer to it as cheesy or corny, perhaps a comedy instrument, but I suspect I would feel the same if the only experience I had of the instrument was endless rounds of You Are My Sunshine and Daydream Believer played by people in beach wear...  (naturally you have a get out clause if you genuinely live on a tropical beach and don't have a worry in the world of course..). People don't endlessly claim that the guitar is such a happy instrument, and not doing so has hardly harmed its appeal.  Would it not help the uke being taken more seriously, if we, the players, started to treat it more seriously?  And as for those experiences you will find online, they can be concerning to any new player who has been repeatedly told that the ukulele world is full of roses and pussycats. Don't blame the instrument, but understand that people are people and you will find good and bad everywhere. Be prepared and you will quickly seek out those people who are more willing to welcome and support you. With time I am sure you will make good friends too, but please. please, stop telling new players that everything is so damn happy....

After all, It is just a ukulele....

Or am I just being grumpy?


14 comments:

Al said...

Right on, Baz! Completely agree.

So long as I'm alive there'll be at least one grumpy, asshole ukulele player.

Barry Maz said...

ha! Right on indeed Al - can I interest you in a hawaiian shirt and straw trilby? I guarantee it will make you happy...

Doc Kazoo said...

Very well stated.

Carl said...

Excellent rant: 8/10. You dropped a couple of marks only because there were plenty of opportunities to add swearing, and you might mention Cosmos and Underground by name and let people find out which is which in order to settle into their own place 
I would love to turn up to a local ukulele player’s gathering and exchange skills, meet people, try other instruments etc, but my dread of being welcomed with open-arms and garlanded with leis at the door keeps my playing solo and curmudgeonly.
I am my own worst enemy regarding the ukulele and happiness – I play it specifically because I find it suits the songs of loss, missed opportunity and unrequited love that I am drawn to, and yet when I took delivery of a new instrument at work the other week and colleagues goaded me into playing something for them, I worried that they would never have heard of anything I enjoy playing, or things would just go too slow for them as an audience and I gave them ‘Ain’t she sweet?’ at maximum chirpy-setting instead.

Barry Maz said...

Ha ha Carl! That's what gets me too - that 'cheeky chirpy' dial is all too often turned up to 11...

thesumoftheparts said...

nice one! I am struggling with this one at the moment too. I make my living wearing Hawaiian shirts and bringing people together over a ukulele. The happy tag is very useful for attracting and keeping people, and generally true. It's ability to help people socialise cannot be denied (when compared to other instruments). Socialising often makes people happy. But we also cannot deny that it can be very pleasurable to play a sensitive sad song on the uke. We need to help people understand that the uke (and music) can help us express sadness too.

Jive Knight said...

Baz, you're being grumpy haha
No, but I think it's become the "positioning" in "marketing" the ukulele and to be honest as someone who likes to encourage others to play Uke etc I'm happy to forward the image, it's been successful hasn't it??
Plus like all good positioning it does have it's roots in truth; the Uke does have a very happy cheerful sound musically in general compared to many other instruments. It's also something that is easier to get immediate results with when learning which makes beginners happy & can seriously change lives! So yes, when promoting Uke to the "muggles" yes! It's happy baby! Luv ya cheers Ian

Matt Warnes said...

Did you know the Korala Explore is made in two new designs... one with a picture of palm trees and the word 'Hawaii', the other with a smiley face on it, exactly the same as the one you use in this article, but with the frown turned upside down. I am not stocking them..... I am guessing neither would make you happy!

Stewart C. Russell said...

You'll get this with any group: when (ukulele | banjo | mapping | ham radio | linux | …) nerds come together there will always be a strong feeling that "This [activity] trumps all problems". There will always be people who cause difficulties in social groups, and they are too easily ignored in situations like these. I'd recommend reading “Five Geek Social Fallacies” by Michael Suileabhain-Wilson — it's a brief article on interest-group dynamics, and how to avoid getting them poisoned.

Barry Maz said...

Matt - I am happy!! honest - not the point I was making. The uke makes me very happy. Just don't believe any one instrument is happy or otherwise!

karl said...

You have made several points: hawaiian happiness is a stereotype, one can play serious or even sad music on a ukulele, the players can be quite unfriendly... you made more, but these ones I'll remember.

However (that's why there's a comments section, I think):
- I think high pitched music generally works more uplifting, on any instrument, regardless of 'island marketing' - it even works on a piano.
- the re-entrant tuning makes music sound faster and more uplifting, and not just on 'folksy' instruments like the banjo and the ukulele, but also on lutes and baroque guitars. I really think it has to do with psycho-acoustics, hearing a cascade of close-ranged notes has a different effect than the same sequence over a longer range.
- no-one can deny that the physical size is a funny thing to most spectators, like a miniature bike or gigantic shoes. To me, the size isn't funny at all, but to a lot of others it still is. Like a picollo flute, really.

So there must be something 'happy' about a ukulele as an instrument, regardless of the marketing context, the musical styles played on it or the players' attitudes.

Barry Maz said...

I get what you are saying, but that whole 'the uke is funny' thing is something that gets me down. It stops it being taken seriously as an instrument. You never hear people saying that the violin is just a funny / cheeky / comedy version of a Cello.

Anonymous said...

As a player of the bassoon, the so-called 'clown of the orchestra' I agree with your remarks wholeheartedly! The bassoon in skilled hands, like most musical instruments,can express so many deep human emotions. What a waste to keep it to Teddy Bear's Picnic and would-be 'funny' trivia! At least I am not stereotyped into life in beach wear.

Stef said...

I think you're pretty right. As you said, the ukulele is first a musical instrument, a tool through which the player expresses his emotions, whatever they are. And I'm very glad to see more and more players showing the world all the possibilities of the instrument. They are good ambassadors. But I have to admit: whenever and whatever I play on my uke, it makes me happy!

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