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MIGHTY UKE

8/08/2011 12:01 AM Eastern

If you’re not from Canada, you might
come away from Mighty Uke wishing you were, if
only for the British Columbia tradition of teaching
music to elementary
school kids by giving
them ukuleles. “In
grade four I got a
standard-issue ukulele
just like all my
other classmates,”
we hear Canadian ukulele ace James Hill say in this
charming and informative documentary. “It was the
best thing that ever happened to me.”

The little ukulele, apparently, is easy to play (I’ll
take the Canadian-fi nanced fi lmmakers’ word on
that) and makes music that’s richer than you might
think.

“Here was this instrument with two fewer strings
than a guitar, and yet the sophistication of the
chords was all there, and I had no idea you could
get that kind of pretty sound out of what I thought
was a novelty instrument,” New Yorker and ukulelemusic
publisher Jim Beloff says.

He collects ukes, as do many folks in this doc,
and he has one tattooed with this sage motto: “Music
self-played is happiness self-made.”

We learn the uke’s origin — in Hawaii, of course,
but modifi ed from Portugese instruments — and
how it became a craze after the Panama Pacific International
Exhibition in 1915 in San Francisco and
“On The Beach at Waikiki” became a top seller. Images
of hula dancers fueled an obsession with the
exotic, new 50th state, and Tin Pan Alley cranked
out tunes such as “By The Light of the Silvery
Moon” in sheet music aimed at uke players.

The doc shows us individuals and large groups of
uke players, all around the world, some just strumming
for fun and others, notably fast-picking Hawaiian
James Shimabukuro, for audience amazement.

Then there’s Peter Luongo, the principal at Noel
Booth Elementary School in Langley, B.C. He’s the
musical director of the school’s ukulele orchestra
and an astounding teacher. Every year he takes a
uke troupe from the school to Hawaii to learn from
and play for the locals. As one of the students says,
that was a troupe she had to be in.

Their journey — and the instrument’s — is well
worth joining, via Mighty Uke.

 

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