WHY I UKE | BY DANIEL HO
When I was about five years old, my dad always would have the AM radio in our green 1968 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme tuned to KUMU 1600, Honolulu’s easy-listening station. “Song for Anna,” a ukulele instrumental performed by Ohta-San, was in heavy rotation at the time. “Click-it-or-ticket” was not yet law, so I’d lie across the speaker panel in the angled nook under the rear window, stare at the stars in the deep blue Hawaiian sky, and get lost in the vibrations of this wonderful composition.
My friend, David Ho, taught me to pick the melody on a ukulele, and at that very moment, I was hooked! For two years, it was the only song I knew—well, I could only play the verse. But it was enough for me. I walked in circles around the house, through the kitchen, to the foyer, down the hall, and back to the kitchen, plucking the melody on my Ohta-san model Kamaka over and over and over again. At that left turn down the hall, I’d look up to see myself in the mirror, ukulele in hand. “Wow, I’m pretty cool,” I thought. The boy in the mirror spoke to me. He said that I would not follow in my father’s footsteps and grow up to be a chemist.
He also told me that I needed to learn as much as I could about music if I were to pursue it as a profession. So I put my ukulele back in its case and picked up the classical guitar, then piano, drums, bass, voice and eventually studied jazz arranging and classical theory. At 18, I left Hawaii to study composition and film scoring at the Grove School of Music in Los Angeles.
After decades of working in various genres as a composer, producer, pianist, and guitarist, I dusted off my ukulele and played a few notes. Its familiar sound and feel instantly filled a void that I hadn’t realized existed, and a love was reawakened. The uke was still that engaging instrument I took with me everywhere as a kid, but with a formal music background, I now wanted to reach for every horizon of its capabilities. Could I play melody, counterpoint, and harmony at the same time on just four strings? What kind of voicings could I come up with? Could I write a ukulele piece based on a tabla rhythm like ten-and-a-half over four? Could I emulate bass and percussion sounds on it? Which mics and preamps best captured the detail and essence of its sound, and what tone woods sounded best?
Over the next several years, I dwelled on these and other questions as my career as an instrumentalist suddenly blossomed, and I began taking an interest in designing ukuleles.
Yes, I learned how
to do a triple-strum
in two hours while rollerblading
around a tennis court.
These days, I’m still challenging myself on the ukulele, as with a new original song that I’m in the process of recording. Its polyrhythmic meter sums at 21 eighth notes: one rhythmic element is ten-and-a-half quarter notes (10.5 x 2 = 21), and the other is seven dotted quarter notes (7 x 3 = 21).
Since being reunited with the ukulele, I can honestly say that I’ve never been bored—as long as I have one with me, I can make music. I practice at the airport, on the plane, on the train, in a car, at the shopping mall, in a restaurant while I’m waiting for food, even rollerblading on an unlit tennis court in the middle of the night. Yes, I learned how to do a triple-strum in two hours while rollerblading around a tennis court. I never practice sitting down. Unlike piano, where I’m forced to stare at the same wall for hours, I can practice ukulele while walking the dog.
Yup, I do that, too.
The number of ukuleles I own is not important (maybe 42?), but I will say that I desperately need each and every one of them, from a Brazilian rosewood and spruce custom KoAloha tenor, which is my performing instrument, to an Ohana bass ukulele, which I’ve been using to record all my bass parts, to a Bongolele, which is a brand-new percussion instrument by Ohana Ukuleles. With this combination, I can pretty much cover every part in a band—melody, harmony, bass, and percussion.
One lifetime is not enough to learn all there is to know about music, let alone this one amazing instrument. I only hope to live long enough to run out of good ideas.
I think my cue will be when I’m overcome by boredom.