BY JIM D’VILLE | FROM THE SUMMER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
It was no fluke that the dulcet tones of the ukulele caught the ear of Brazilian musician Vinícius Vivas—considering it was the sound made by a Magic Fluke! Vivas says, “The ukulele was not popular in Brazil around 2010. The main stringed instruments were the guitar, mandolin, and Brazilian cavaquinho. At about this time, I heard the song ‘Elephant Gun’ by the American band Beirut.” The wildly popular video for the song (36 million YouTube views and counting) opens with a tight shot of Beirut’s Zach Condon lightly strumming a ukulele made by the Magic Fluke Company in Sheffield, Massachusetts. “I’d never heard a ukulele before. Listening to the song’s intro, I fell in love with the instrument’s tone. I wasn’t aware of the ukulele or reentrant tuning, but something touched me on that first listening.”
After failed attempts to re-create the sound he heard on guitar, Vivas watched a YouTube tutorial for “Elephant Gun” and discovered it was a ukulele he was hearing. His enchantment with the sound of the instrument resulted in an almost instant case of that old familiar “malady”: Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. He had to have one, maybe two. “One of my guitar students agreed to help me buy myself a ukulele from the USA on eBay,” he recalls. “I would have to wait a month for it to arrive. During that month, I was walking down the street in Rio and saw a ukulele in a music store. I bought it. So before I even had my first ukulele, I had two! It was the beginning of my UAS.”
Vivas’ journey to the ukulele began with classical guitar studies at age nine. He continued his guitar education at the Escola de Música Villa Lobos in Rio de Janeiro. Next, he enrolled as a history major at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Halfway through his studies, however, he discovered he was better suited to pursuing a degree in music education.
“My first thought about the ukulele was it was so great for music education,” he says. “I was unaware of the many works on ukulele pedagogy done in Canada and the USA. But I realized the ukulele was perfect for children’s music education.” This realization led him to write his master’s dissertation on The Use of the Ukulele in Learning Harmonic Accompaniments in the Musicalization Process: A Case Study with Students from Colégio de Administração in Rio de Janeiro, published in 2015. It was the first master’s dissertation on the ukulele done in Brazil. He now teaches children and adults through his university position and also provides teacher training.
From there, Vivas began posting ukulele tutorial videos to YouTube and cultivating a sizable audience. To continue his education, he completed the three-year teacher training program by Canadian ukulele master James Hill. “Studying with James and learning the Canadian ukulele tradition was very important,” he notes. Says Hill, “Vinícius is a dedicated teacher with vision and talent. He completed all three JHUI Teacher Certification Program levels outside his home country, in his second language, and I still learn things from watching him teach.”
Vivas’ musical prowess and teaching skills soon led to invitations to ukulele festivals worldwide, including the Seoul International Aloha Ukulele Festival in Korea, the Gaithersburg Ukulele Festival in Maryland, the Tropical Winter Ukulele Festival in Finland, and several in his native Brazil. He often plays in theaters and jazz clubs in his home city of Rio, including the Blue Note Rio Jazz Club. Playing live, Vivas’ repertoire covers an amazingly broad range of musical styles, all of which he handles effortlessly. For instance, in a wonderful concert from 2019 on YouTube, his repertoire over the course of more than an hour includes several Brazilian pieces, Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing,” Vivas’ own tribute to the manouche style, an Ed Sheeran tune, Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” the 1920s Tin Pan Alley classic “Sheik of Araby,” Hawaiian songs by Ohta-san, Ernest Kai, and Queen Liliuokalani (“Aloha Oe,” of course), The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” and Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing.” Most are solo uke instrumentals, but on a few songs he plays in a trio with a standup bassist and second uke, and others are uke duets.
Growing up in Rio, Brazil’s musical melting pot, has certainly influenced Vivas’ musical worldview. “I’m not telling you there are no other Brazilian cities with a rich musical history,” he says, “but Rio is the country’s iconic musical capital, with samba, bossa nova, and choro as the predominant styles. Choro is the least-known style outside of Brazil—it originated in 19th century Rio as a form of instrumental dance music. Samba and bossa nova gained their popularity in the mid-20th century.”
Because the ukulele is of Portuguese origin (developed in Hawaii from Portuguese instrumental forerunners), and Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country in the world, one might think the ukulele would be a nationally recognized instrument there, but that has not been the case. Vivas has a plausible explanation for why the uke took until the 21st century to gain a real foothold in Brazil: “The reason may be that the cavaquinho and its role in choro have always been popular in Brazil.” The Portuguese cavaquinho is, like the ukulele, a small stringed instrument of the European guitar family, but with four wire or gut strings and tuned differently than a uke.
Vivas believes that many Brazilian dance rhythms lend themselves to being played on a reentrant-tuned ukulele: “On linear tuned instruments, like guitar, very fast strumming produces too many low-frequency tones. The Portuguese dance music tradition is played on instruments similar to the ukulele—cavaquinho and braguinha. However, low-G linear tuning does lay out better for bossa nova.”
Even as his career as a performer continues to grow, Vivas still views teaching as the primary focus of his musical life. “My approach to teaching is more about music through the ukulele than teaching the ukulele itself,” he says. “When I teach my ukulele groups and orchestras, I teach different styles of music and how to expand the ukulele’s possibilities.”
Vivas’ teaching prowess is evident in his arrangements with the two ukulele ensembles he leads—the Federal University of Rio Ukulele Orchestra and his worldwide online ukulele ensemble. James Hill says, “It gives me hope to know that someone like Vinícius is keeping the ukulele alive and setting the stage for the next generation of players and teachers.”
WHAT VINÍCIUS VIVAS PLAYS
Vivas’ stage ukulele is a spruce-topped custom tenor by Taiwanese makers aNueNue (the name means “rainbow” in Hawaiian) based on their UT200 Moon Bird series, but with unique inlays, including a stylized version of Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, which sits atop that city’s Corcovado mountain. It is strung with aNueNue fluorocarbon strings tuned to high-G. Vivas also plays a spruce UT200 Moon Bird (with the Rainbow Chief petroglyph design on the headstock), with D’Addario fluorocarbon strings tuned to low-G; a koa aNueNue UT3K, also with the aNueNue fluorocarbon strings, high-G; and an aNueNue PAS3 Papa all-solid mahogany tenor (but tuned as a baritone, with Pepe Romero Baby Baritone strings). Vivas also owns a Koaloha Opio super concert, an Ace D67 mahogany tenor, and instruments made by Brazilian luthiers Bruno Galli (a cedar tenor) and Renato Casares (spruce soprano). His electronics setup includes an L.R. Baggs Para Acoustic DI, an Electro-Harmonix Oceans 11 reverb pedal, and a Boss RC-300 Loop Station.