I bought a little red ukulele with my birthday fun money two months ago. I had wanted one for a long time, most recently being inspired by a boatful of fearless twenty-somethings getting ready to sail the seven seas. They would stay up late into the night, talking and laughing and singing ballads to ukulele accompaniment. These tunes would drift into my hatch and set me to dreaming of palm tree-fringed lagoons on Pacific atolls.
Now the merits of this instrument are many. It is small and portable, making it perfect for life on a sailboat. It has a mellow, sweet sound; even when played inexpertly it sounds nice. It is easy to learn—figuring out a few chords on its four strings sets you up to play dozens of songs from the beginning, a reward that I find addictive. Its recent growth in popularity, probably due to the ubiquitous Iz rendition of “Over the Rainbow,” means that is easy to find chord diagrams and songs and Youtube lessons online. At $30-50, an entry-level soprano ukulele is inexpensive and easy to acquire. And they’re so cute. I know you’re not supposed to select an instrument based on its appearance, but when I saw that little red ukulele with the shark-shaped bridge, I couldn’t resist.
And it has not disappointed me. My constant companion, it has transformed the tedious dinghy rides to and from shore into practice sessions. Hours at the park with kids who play basketball or ride skateboards are now opportunities to learn a new song. And the quiet hour after everyone has gone to bed and the dishes are done is my equivalent to singing in the shower. Granted, the time I spend playing the ukulele is time I used to spend doing other things, some of them arguably more productive. The novelty may wear off and I’ll go back to doing those things, but the gift of music is one you get to keep. Long passages when we’re just sitting in the cockpit, starlit night watches when my eyes tire of reading, beach days under an umbrella: these are idle hours transformed by music into entertainment, creativity, and hopefully, beauty.
Recently, I gathered a group of friends at Dockside Tropical Café for the monthly Ukulele Night sponsored by the Florida Ukulele Society. A ukulele band with a bass, tenor, and soprano ukulele plays onstage and the audience plays along on their own instruments. At our table, ukuleles appeared out of nowhere. In addition to my red one, we produced a yellow, green, blue and natural wood ukulele. In that setting, it doesn’t matter that no one plays well. That sound system can drown out any mistake! The band does covers of classic rock to pop hits, from the Rolling Stones, Beatles, Chuck Berry, and Bob Dylan to Gnarles Barkley. Anything seems possible with this adorable, versatile little instrument.