Learning to play the ukulele


THE ukulele may seem like a toy to many people. Compared to the guitar, another stringed instrument, the ukulele looks small and unappealing. However, anyone who is fairly accomplished on both the ukulele and guitar knows how important the four-stringed instrument could be for anyone who has never played a stringed instrument before and wants to get some initial training in a stringed instrument. The skills of strumming and plucking, and keeping to a set rhythm, as well as changing from one chord to another while playing a song, would definitely carry over to guitar playing should the ukulele student want to make that transition. In this article, I share with you some tales of how I came to play the ukulele.

Buying a ukulele recently

I bought a ukulele last month and at the moment it is the only stringed instrument in my room. The other instrument I carry around with me is a wooden descant recorder, one I bought back in 1999 or thereabouts in Wewak. The wind instrument goes with me wherever I go to work or study. It has travelled with me to Port Moresby and Kavieng in Papua New Guinea as well as to the Republic of Nauru and now Australia. I do not play the recorder where I am, as I used to, because it can be noisy and distract people I live with. In 2014-2016, when I was in Port Moresby, I had an acoustic guitar and an electronic keyboard with me. Then when I was over in Kavieng from 2017-2019, I got myself another electronic keyboard, the cheapest that one can get in a shop. (You will understand what a musical instrument means to someone like me when I share more stuff about this topic next week.)

The motivation to get a ukulele

My last article in Weekender featured a group of postgraduate students in Adelaide, South Australia, meeting Nancy Bates, the indigenous Australian singer-songwriter while they were on a study tour in April in the southern part of the state.I was part of that group and reported on what the musician did with her skills, as in helping female prisoners. Our session with her included a lesson where she handed out ukuleles, 10 in all, to the student participants to learn and strum three chords to a song that she taught us. For me, that lesson was a stand-out, and brought back some memories of when I first learned to play that instrument. I could see the students, who may have never played a ukulele before, trying to correctly place their fingers on the fingerboard of the small instrument. I, as someone who has played the ukulele since I was nine years old, reached over to those participants near me and helped them get their finger-positioning right. It was that lesson with the Australian musician that motivated me to buy my own ukulele for $70 a few weeks later.

The schoolmate and his ukulele back in the 1970s

In the late 1970s, I was a primary school student in Wewak, East Sepik. There was a boy in our class from Chambri Lakes, in East Sepik, who usually brought his ukulele to class and during recess and lunch, we, the junior students at St Mary’s Community School, would be sitting on branches of the big frangipani trees behind the classrooms and singing the Sepik local classics, the string band hits. He was the boy that I watched playing that small but magical instrument. Another thing that compounded the awe that I had for the stringed instrument was the school radio programme that followed the travels and adventures of three youngsters in Peter, Kinibo and Dagu, the radio broadcast programme that we listened to regularly in class. Peter, one of the main characters, had a magic ukulele and whenever the three were in a dilemma in one of the radio episodes, he would play the instrument and they would get some direction from it. That radio programme in a not-too-obvious way influenced my fascination with that instrument.

An old 1960s photo of my mother Clara Hukahu (née Gulgul), someone who taught me a few things about the ukulele. – Pictures borrowed

My mother and cousins in the 1970s
Mothers are skilful in many ways. Apart from cooking, washing and doing a hundred different things, many like to sing and many more like to dance. But there are a few among them who love to play a song on a musical instrument, they are the musicians. Such was my late mother, Clara Hukahu (née Gulgul). She, a Wewak Island woman, was another person who helped me play the ukulele. She taught me the basic stuff on the instrument. (I had to mention her name because I cannot think of a ukulele without thinking about her and the songs she sang.) You won’t find a lot of mothers who can play musical instruments and continue to be fascinated with those. My late mother, who passed on in 2010, also plays the descant recorder, an instrument that I taught myself to play when I was in my early 20s and in university.  Unlike my schoolmate from Chambri, my mother played her island songs on the ukulele, songs that were usually sung in her local dialect. And, with her formerly working as a primary school teacher, she also played simple classroom songs and other hit songs for the family, like Do-Re-Mi from the 1965 epic musical The Sound of Music. There was an older cousin from the island who lived with us in my father’s village and he was also a master of the ukulele. I also learned a chord or two from him. (It is my view that the best ukulele players back in those days were the Sepik River people and the island people.) In a way, I was fortunate also to have lived among my father’s relatives, who made their home in a small hamlet called Wlarina, a part of the larger Kremending village, which sits just on the southern boundary of the main part of Wewak town. My older cousins had a live band too and we, the smaller ones, would watch them practise their songs, numbers they would play in different functions or events that people organised and hired them. When I started playing the guitar when I was about 16 years old, almost all of my cousins of about the same age as me also knew how to strum the guitar. There were a good number of guitars lying around the village and you could hear guitar sounds any time of the day as well as late into the night. The environment I was living in helped shape my interest and skills in playing the ukulele and guitar, and later on learning the rudiments in piano playing. Admittedly, I should say that I am not a skilled musician as some of my other relatives are, but the foundation that I walked on, so to speak, has enabled me to continue experimenting with music, including writing my own songs. (Next week, I will share a bit about a ukulele song that I just wrote last month, one that first-time students of the instrument can play and sing to get used to working on the three main chords on the ukulele.)

An aunt tells me about my mother
One of my aunts, Rose Maule, a retired teacher, was a schoolmate of my mother’s. She was teaching at Bishop Leo High School (now Bishop Leo Secondary School) back in the 1990s when I joined the staff there in my first year out of university, in 1994. At that time, she and another female teacher would tell me stories about my mother, stories that my parent never told me. They were schoolmates of my mother and they attended the first all-girls mission-run school at Torembi, along the Sepik River, in the early 1960s. That school was later moved to Yarapos, near Wewak, and is today known as Mercy College. It was Maule who told me about how my mother taught her to tune and play the ukulele. As I was thinking about this report in the past few weeks, I realised that the same tuning method that my mother taught her cousin back in the 1960s was the same one that she taught me in the late 1970s. Today, they have all sorts of fancy devices to help a musician tune their instruments. Some of us still use the old methods, we tune by ear. (I still have to find who on my mother’s island taught her to play the ukulele. That is another assignment for me.)

Skilled ukulele players on YouTube

If you take the time to check on YouTube, you will find many ukulele players sharing their skills. Some also offer lessons on how to play the ukulele. If you search around a bit more, you will also learn that many popular songs that people play on the guitar can be played on the ukulele too. There is one interesting ukulele player that you may want to watch playing a famous song. He is Hawaiian musician Israel Ka’ano Kamakawiwo’ole, and he is known more popularly as Iz. Sadly, he passed on at the early age of 38 in 1997. You can see how he does his rendition of Over the Rainbow, an old-time classic. You can also see other YouTube videos of ukulele players playing as solos, duets or even an ensemble composed of more than a handful of musicians.

Next article: First steps in learning to play the ukulele

  • Thomas Hukahu is an Australia Awards student in Adelaide.