My ook and me
Shopping for a musical instrument? Be aware that such a thing is not as easy as you might think, because by the time you get past the ins and outs of pronouncing the names of instruments, you’re far too tired to make any actual music.
In protest of this, I have cold-bloodedly used ‘ukulele’ as a verb, as you can see in the title. But although using it as a verb is bad, saying it out loud is worse. If you do, someone somewhere is going to be telling you that you’re saying it wrong. If you pronounce it ‘yook-ulele’, which is, apparently, the ‘right’ way, you’re going to be laughed at by Hawaiians and language snobs. If you pronounce it ‘ook-ulele, which is, apparently, the ‘right’ way, you’ll be laughed at by everybody else. And actually, you really will sound silly saying ‘ook-ulele’. Trust me, I know. I’ve tried it. In fact, I find that I cannot strum an ‘ook-ulele’, I can only strum a ‘yook-ulele’. Hawaiians may vilify me for this, but they’d likely vilify me anyway, for the sounds I produce on the thing.
By now you’re probably thinking, “Oh to hell with this, I’ll just get a guitar”, but what kind? If you’re going to get your nasal twang on and play old-timey country songs, you’ll need a ‘GITar’, otherwise you’ll want a guiTAR. Or you can tip-toe right past that troublesome instrument and go for the piano, it’s kind of big but at least there’s only one way to pronounce it. But hold on, are you going to be a peeANist or a PEEanist? The road to music is fraught with such issues.
Possibly the easiest thing is to go with an African instrument like the djembe (it’s a drum). You can pronounce it any way you like, really, and if people correct you, you can can tell them that your way is the authentic pronunciation as spoken by a small djembe-playing African bush tribe. And, you reckon, if a small djembe-playing African bush tribe doesn’t know how to pronounce it, nobody does.
All that aside, I decided to buy a ukulele. It is a fun instrument to play. It should be, after all it is the instrument of the Hawaiian Islands, and of Tiny Tim, too. I first played a uke or ‘ook’ in Grade 7 music class, it was the instrument d’jour, and I loved it right away, mainly because it was easy, and unlike the other instrument d’jour, the recorder, it didn’t involve spit. Also, if you strummed the uke loudly enough, nobody could hear your singing voice, which was a significant bonus. A few years later I tried the guitar, the ‘guiTAR’, which didn’t go anywhere at all, even when I tried calling it a ‘GITar’. Then, substantially more years later, I tried the guitar again, and failed just as miserably as the first time around, my hands not being particularly good at twisting into the various pretzel-esque positions required to make guitar chords.
I had long wanted another instrument to add to my collection (keyboard, djembe, balafon), but it wasn’t until the ukulele became the instrument d’jour once again that I remembered how perfect it is, basically a plunky little guitar for smaller hands. And it only has four strings, that’s two less strings to worry about, which means a whole lot less hand-pretzeling to do. I traded off my seldom-used guitar for a cute little Kala number, and have been happily strumming ever since. With the ukulele, you can be up and running a few songs within an hour or so. Just basic songs, like This Land Is Your Land, Amazing Grace, and Here Comes The Sun (without all the riffs), but it’s great for your morale to get something happening right away, especially after wasting all that time and energy trying to say ‘ook-ulele’ without snickering. Auld Lang Syne is a snap as well, and attempts to sing those high notes can be an effective way to clear an area of living things.
And the best part about the ukulele? C chord. It uses - get ready for this - one finger. Yes, one finger. The F chord is pretty sweet too, only two fingers. G7, another great chord, involves three fingers, which sounds like a lot of fingers until you realize they all line up the same way they line up when you’re holding a scalding hot cup of coffee. Your fingers are used to the position already, they don’t get upset at all with G7. There are other one-finger chords, but I find that you run into memory issues when you have more than three chords to worry about. There are also chords that involve far more serious finger gymnastics, but I’ll work up to those slowly, and by ‘slowly’ I mean ‘never’.
Whatever instrument you choose, the best part is watching people - especially survivors of your earlier attempts with other instruments - struggle to completely block/avoid/deny the very existence of the new instrument so that they never ever ever ever have to sit in pain listening to you play. You can lay the thing right in front of them and they will still manage not see it, it is the elephant in the room. And they will be sweating, too, terrified that you might actually mention it. You simply cannot buy that kind of fun.
Remember, to choose the musical instrument that is right for you, you will need to consider the following (warning, occasional puns ahead):
“How do I pronounce the stupid thing?”
Best tune your back on the ukulele.
“When I sing, people run away, also I hate my neighbours and want them to suffer.”
You should dget dthe djembe.
“Ugh, will it make spit?”
Ugh indeed, better spit out “No!” to the recorder.
“I don’t have ridiculously long and highly agile fingers, also I am twang-deficient.”
Give that guitar the chord shoulder.
“I lack elegance, and besides, how the hell do you pronounce ‘pianist’?”
Slam down the lid on the piano idea.
“Would it be easier to just make a playlist on my iPod?”