Going out on a limb on this rant, but then I have never shied away from the more difficult ukulele discussions (and nor do I think it is healthy for other people to do that). But I realised that I hadn't actually talked about this issue before. What is it with the assumption that we all need to prostrate ourselves to Hawaii if we play the ukulele? (Bear with me here - do read on before immediately jumping for the email button..)
I've been prompted to write this based on a couple of recent heated debates (and comments left on this very blog) that, to be honest, left me a little irritated. They were comments that essentially tried to guilt me (and others) by suggesting that I was NOT showing any reverence or respect to Hawaii, because I didn't feel the need to dress like one or speak like one. It's quite absurd. A suggestion of an automatic contract that you have to sign up to when you start playing uke. Surely that can't be right can it? I'm not from Hawaii - I was born in the rainy north west of the UK... Surely you can acknowledge the origins without being full on Maui about it?
Let's deal with some basics first. Of course, the ukulele is most commonly associated with Hawaii. That much is obvious because it was Hawaii that appropriated the instrument from the Europeans (possibly Portuguese, possibly Madeiran, possibly the Azores depending on which of many varying stories you believe) and gave it that name - a Hawaiian word. But note - 'appropriated'. The instrument already existed as a box with strings. So it was really only the taking up of the instrument and naming it 'Ukulele' which is the Hawaiian bit. And that was back in 1880's - there has been an awful lot of ukulele playing around the globe since then.
But fair enough - the ukulele IS most commonly tied to an origin in Hawaii. The instrument is revered over there and is intrinsically linked to establishing Hawaiian culture. It was promoted by the King and used in ceremonial royal events. The instrument is incredibly important to that society.
And I acknowledge that. Totally. But it really isn't being disrespectful if I choose to play one without taking up Hawaiian acoutrements to go with it. You see, I don't think that's how respect works.
Personally, I have more time for quiet and serious respect for any 'thing' rather than going the full on gaudy about it.
Take a cheap Chinese ukulele brand churning out terrible instruments that most Hawaiians would cringe at, made by cheap labour and in poor working conditions, but labelling their website and their boxes with Hawaiian flowers and pictures of surf boards. Is that respect? It isn't. It's just lowest common denominator marketing spin.
Is being a bloke or a lady from
How about a brand of toilet paper / cars / anything using some ukulele music in their adverts to sell more product and choosing a Hawaiian style sound. Is that respect? No, just capitalist marketing again.
It's everywhere. The branding, the outfits, the song choices. And let's be clear - if you want to dress like that or you want to play a ukulele decorated in flowers then that is absolutely YOUR choice. But that is not the point. Doing so does not make you any more reverential to the origins of the ukulele than someone who doesn't.
Being disrespectful to Hawaii about the ukulele would be trying to re-write history to remove the connection of the instrument from the Islands, or have it re-named. That isn't actually as absurd as it sounds as when the islands were originally annexed by the US, what followed was a period where traditional Hawaiian culture and language WERE sidelined / not taught, and rather forcefully at that. But it's 2016. That really isn't the case in the modern world any longer and I think the chances of the ukulele losing it's connection to Hawaii would be slim to nil. In fact, the very fact that so many of us are playing the damn thing and the fact that I truly have never met anyone who didn't know it originated in Hawaii... well, I'd say that the respect to Hawaii is alive and well myself. Should we forget that history? Of course not, but I just don't think approaching the whole respect thing as some sort of weird cosplay event isn't my kind of respect.
Of course, celebrating culture and keeping traditions alive is important. I regularly attend UK folk festivals for (partly) the same reason. Those events thrive and in part are keeping alive very earliest British folk music traditions. It's the same thing and the events keep it alive. But I dont dress like a Morris Dancer on any day of the week. It doesn't mean that I don't respect the history though. Hey, I really respect the guitar too, but I don't speak with a Spanish accent or dress like Paco de Lucia.
And as the instrument continues to grow in popularity that in turn has allowed many Hawaiian names to go on to great success on the music circuits GLOBALLY. I've featured a few on this site. When arguably the most famous player of the instrument today is Jake Shimabukuro, a Hawaiian, it seems clear to me that the roots of the instrument are hardly being forgotten, regardless of how I pronounce it or what shirt I wear. The popularity of the instrument itself IS growing the pool of respect for the culture. How can it not?
Hawaii is clearly a very beautiful place (I have never been). It's also a place that automatically conjures images to me of happy people and a rich cultural heritage. This bloke from the rainy UK automatically thinks that and I believe most other people do to. I think I always have. In my mind Hawaiian culture is a wonderful thing and I would sorely like to visit. That automatic link with the ukulele and Hawaii is ingrained in all of us I think.
So, please don't tell me I am not showing enough respect because I don't choose to go with the faux adoration. Don't tell me that having spent years writing a ukulele site that specifically aims to encourage people to play the thing that I am not doing enough for the support of this instrument. And don't assume you know what I do and don't respect based on how I dress and speak.
You can read my many other rants on various topics surrounding the odd world of the ukulele on this link.
© Barry Maz