BY BLAIR JACKSON | FROM THE SUMMER 2022 ISSUE OF UKULELE
People come to the ukulele in countless different ways. For Atlanta-based music educator and ordained minister Angela Denise Davis, the road to ukulele was much different than most and probably not one anyone would want to follow. (Don’t worry, it has a happy ending!)
The story begins in 2003, 12 years before she picked up a uke for the first time. “I still don’t know what caused it,” she begins, “but within six months of my returning from a trip to Namibia [in southern Africa], I had significant vision loss, and three months after that I was legally blind. It stopped my whole career. I was working as an admissions director for Vanderbilt Divinity School [where she’d received a Masters] and enjoying the work I was doing there. I saw it as a larger part of my ministry, and when I became blind, the bottom of my life fell out. I had to find a way of revamping my life, and part of that was going back to school and getting another master’s degree [from Georgia State] and to work as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the blind. In a way, it was still the same thing I was doing in admissions work, because I was helping people figure out where they wanted to land vocationally in the world. And as I was helping people with that, I was figuring it out for myself.”
Davis’ vision loss was diagnosed as optic neuritis. “With optic neuritis you lose vision, and you get some back, but you never get back to the baseline,” she says. “So after my first bout in my left eye, I didn’t realize I was also losing vision in the right eye. After the second bout, I totally lost vision in the left eye, and lost some vision in the right eye but got it back. I had five other bouts, but I never got back the left eye. I have no vision in the left eye and partial vision in my right, so I can see things peripherally, but it’s my central vision that’s affected. So I need magnification, I need audio descriptions, voiceover; I rely on my computer to tell me what’s on the screen. I can’t pick up a book and just read it.”
Unfortunately, another byproduct of her blindness was that “I wasn’t able to play the piano like I used to, and I discovered I was buying a whole lot more music than I was playing. I’ve loved music my entire life, so that was really hard for me.” She says that seeing cellist Yo-Yo Ma performing on TV at a Kennedy Center Honors concert in 2015 inspired her to the point that she “realized I had to start playing music again, but I knew the piano was not the way for me anymore. So I searched on Google for ‘easiest instrument to learn’ and of course the ukulele was the first one to come up!” she laughs. “I would learn later that yes, it was easy to learn, but difficult to really have a lifelong relationship with it, to fully be in communication with the instrument.
“I picked it up and I never looked back, because this amazing sound box with four strings provided me with the opportunity to create music, as opposed to just consume it. This then became my work focus and my life focus—sharing this with other folks. I was so moved by it and captivated by the potential of creating music with it and composing music with it. But the connection is still helping people see where they want to end up in life. I love the ukulele and I love helping and engaging with people. If your vocation can match the joy in your life, you’re blessed, so I feel very blessed.”
She named her community teaching studio Uke Griot—a griot being a West African storyteller or poet or musician—and in addition to taking on ukulele students, Davis also dug into what has become an all-consuming passion project: arranging spirituals for ukulele and bringing some of her students along for the journey. “I grew up listening to this music, she says. “Negro spirituals were such a part of my community, my upbringing, my religious experience, so the songs have always been in my head.
“I think it’s important to say that I started this process as my father was dying. I would play the ukulele by his bedside, and initially we would sing songs together. So it was really about working the melodies in my head, and then I found ways to do the harmony, and bringing those together. I was also working through the James Hill Ukulele Initiative [Teacher Certification Program]—I just finished Level 3—and that has a really rigorous practice log that you have to do, so it kept me honest in terms of practicing and thinking about theory—which I love—and wrapping all these things together.”
At the same time, work she was doing as Creative Director of ZAMI NOBLA (National Organization of Black Lesbians on Aging), including a podcast and a community music program called UKE-In, “attracted some funding from our local Atlanta Pride organization to do outreach for this ukulele beginner course for LGBT adults.” In the fall of 2020, she taught ukulele over Zoom to a group of about 40 people from all over the country, but it was a subsequent grant from Columbia University’s Center on African American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) that allowed Davis to start a smaller Zoom group to work with her specifically on her spirituals project.
“I wanted to work with beginner students because I knew I wanted pieces that a beginning ukulele player could access,” she says. “So the goal was to do this ten-month project and have the first part of it be instruction, and the second part was developing these students into an ensemble—how to hear yourself play in concert with someone else, even when they’re not there; and how to understand how to work the technology: the Upbeat Music App. It took a lot of instruction and imagination for them to grasp the backing tracks and to play their parts along with them and to imagine themselves sitting next to their peers in the ensemble.”
For Davis, part of her own challenge was “how can I create these arrangements and have them be teaching tools to talk about harmony, intervals, melody, how the bass line affects the rest of the piece? All of those things were together in my head as I was working through the pieces. I used Guitar Pro [notation software] and that was a way for me to put the melody in, play it back, and also play the different parts on ukulele.”
She made backing tracks and individual parts to give to the students to practice against, “and sometimes I’d have them play with a backing track and send that into me, and I’d critique it; give them feedback. So Zoom was a real opportunity in terms of instruction and hearing each other. But when it came to playing together as an ensemble, that’s where the Upbeat Music App really came into play and was a real gift because it gave them the opportunity to play their parts, and then once they played it, I was able to go in and make the edits that needed to happen and then I could produce the video from there.”
In the end, the racially mixed, geographically dispersed Remember and Reimagine Ukulele Ensemble, as the group came to be known, worked its way through four classic spirituals that became progressively more difficult: “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore,” “Every Time I Feel the Spirit,” “Wade in the Water,” and “This Little Light of Mine.” “I was really gratified by their interest and their excitement,” Davis says. “It left me very humbled to see all the passion and practice they brought to this work. It speaks to how you can put something into the world, but it’s not yours alone—you need people to come help you with it. That’s the hallmark of the ukulele: the way in which it builds community.”
Davis says she plans to publish her uke arrangements at some point, and not surprisingly, she hopes to keep the ensemble going to work on other spirituals. “Hopefully we can also get some funding to be able to bring everyone to Atlanta at some point to play as an ensemble in person.
Because as much of a joy as it has been to do it online, there’s nothing like being able to sit next to someone and hear them and find your voice in the mix of all these other voices.”