What is in a name? That which we call a ukulele by any other name, would still sound as sweet. Aloha!
How sweet they are, our Airstreams. A growing number of us are also finding sweetness in a musical instrument that is easy, fun to play and nicely compliments our Airstream lifestyle: the ukulele. It is small, light, and easily stored and transported. When brought out of its case, it immediately works its magic as it brings happiness, a sense of wellbeing, and smiles to everyone nearby.
WARNING: Reading the following may cause “ukulitis” akin, or worse than, “aluminumitis”.
Last December, I witnessed this magical event when Airstream Life publisher and editor, Rich Luhr, and his daughter, Emma, played their ukuleles at Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in California. Although Rich is a beginner, he sounded great, with only two weeks of practice and a weekend of instruction from fellow Airstreamer and ukulele player, Tommy Green. Rich’s case of “ukulitis” illustrates that ukulele strumming and Airstreaming go hand-in-hand. He expounded on this in his Tour of America post of January 27, 2008.
So in a journalistic effort to explore this topic, I visited the special exhibit, “The Ukulele & You – America’s Enduring Love of the Jumping Flea”, at the Museum of Making Music, in Carlsbad, CA. Visual histories of the ukulele, as well as many varied shapes and sizes of ukuleles, were on display throughout this delightful museum, complimented by helpful and knowledgeable docents.
I learned that the ukulele is a descendant of the four-stringed musical instrument known as the machete, brought to Honolulu, Hawaii, from the Portuguese Madeira Islands onboard the bark, Ravenscrag, by several men, including wine barrel maker, Augusto Dias, in 1879. Dias, along with shipmates, Manuel Nunes and Jose do Espirito Santo, made the first machete/ukuleles.
Some say that the ukulele got its name from the nickname given to Edward Purvis due to his fast strumming and animated style as he played before the court of King David Kalakaua. Ukulele means “jumping flea” in Hawaiian. The ukulele quickly became the favorite musical instrument of King David Kalakaua and the Hawaiian people, and became symbolic of Hawaii and Hawaiian culture.
The significant beginning of the popularity of the ukulele on the mainland began with the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The Hawaiian Territory built a pavilion that exposed thousands of exposition attendees to Hawaiian culture, including the ukulele.
As I toured the “Ukulele & You” exhibit, the variety of shapes, styles, sizes, and materials of the ukuleles amazed me.
I came across a particularly historic and interesting ukulele. It was Richard Konter’s Martin uke, used to entertain his shipmates on Admiral Byrd’s 1926 Arctic expedition. This ukulele was eventually signed by his fellow crew members, as well as several senators and President Calvin Coolidge.
Some significant ukulele players include Sam Kamaka, Bill Tapia, Herb Ohta, Arthur Godfrey, Lyle Ritz, Michelle Kiba, Janet Klein (featured in Rich Luhr’s Tour of America, Ukulele Song of the Day post of February 4, 2008), and my favorite, Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole, whose CDs are deeply moving and very beautiful.
Now back to my original thesis: the connection of ukulele strumming and Airstreaming. For enlightenment, I asked two notable Airstreamers about their ukuleles and how well they work with their Airstream lifestyle.
Rich Luhr says that he has a Kala brand, curly mango wood, tenor uke and likes it because of its sound and larger fret board (He gave his smaller soprano uke to his daughter, Emma). “I chose uke as an instrument to learn because it is portable, light, fun, and a solo instrument that people can sing along with. Nobody wants to hear a trumpet around a campfire”, Rich says.
Tommy Green says that he owns and plays about fifteen ukes, from 1920’s Martins to ukulele banjos, to Favilla baritones. Tommy is an original member of the Moonlight Beach Ukulele Strummers and started his own Strumming Streamers (Airstream ukulele group). He says, “It is so much fun. It works awesome in the Airstream lifestyle. It is small, easy to transport, and sounds terrific. Practice can be anywhere.”
So now I have succumbed to ukulitis and bought my first ukulele, a mango wood, Kala concert ukulele.
How sweet it is.