By Melissa Llanes Brownlee
I know. I know. The ukulele, right? How stereotypically Hawai’ian of me.
Would you believe me if I told you that I had never owned an ukulele in my entire life until I moved to Japan? Well, it’s true.
I bought a $50 (well 5000 yen) ukulele around 2010 from a music store in the mall, and it was tiny, a soprano. It was also not very good. Twangy. Slipping out of tune at the slightest provocation. I changed the strings to some higher quality ones not understanding that strings wouldn’t help this thing be a better ukulele. I didn’t pick it up again for a couple of years.
Then, one day, walking around Costco, I spotted an ukulele on sale. It looked like a decent brand, had a gig bag, a tuner and small little songbook. This time, I wasn’t disappointed. It sounded great, or at least better than my first, and it was a concert, a slightly bigger size than my tiny soprano (and yes there are even smaller ukulele than sopranos). I think this was the moment when I realized, yes, maybe I do want to play the ukulele again.
I don’t know when I first touched or played an ukulele. They are an essential part of most luau, parties, gatherings if there are any musically inclined family members in attendance. Kanikapila is as natural as breathing (and drinking).
After the food is eaten and covered and most people are on their third or fourth or fifth beer, a few would gather and start to play their ukulele or guitars, and a few who knew how to would dance the hula.
It can be a beautiful thing to watch or a stressful and anxious thing to be coerced into doing… I always remained outside “playing” because I hated performing (too many moments of trauma as a young child).
My strongest memory of playing the ukulele as a child was in elementary school. We actually had the ukulele as one of our instruments in music class along with flutophones and recorders. Sometimes, we played them for May Day. To this day, I still miss those ukulele. They were Duke Kahanamoku and they were so nice.
Now, I own over ten ukulele. This is something known as UAS or Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome. I am in a couple of ukulele groups on social media, and I know this is definitely a thing. Each ukulele sounds and plays differently. I can choose the right one for a song, or a performance, or camping.
My Kala koa tenor (a laminate…I can’t afford real koa) is wonderfully warm and perfect for traditional mele. My banjo ukulele (I have two) are great for country and folk music. I love Patsy Cline. My solid mahogany Enya (by far my most expensive ukulele) is great for recording. I have three Outdoor Ukulele. These are made from carbon fiber polycarbonate and are waterproof and heat resistant. I have taken them up mountains, to black sand beach islands in Tokyo, and flown with them to Okinawa. I also play them under blooming cherry trees for hanami (and I still have petals and sand and other debris in them).
Even though I owned all of these ukulele, I was never really serious. I mean, yes, I can play. I don’t mind playing in front of my friends. I just never really studied and worked on being a musician. I have played the piano since I was four (but I suck and was never consistent) and I have been a singer for all of my life. I could sight read music for singing, but I am very out of practice on this.
So, in the middle of the pandemic, I decided I would start to be serious about this whole ukulele thing. I found some YouTubers whose teaching styles I liked and joined the Patreon of my favorite (Bernadette Teaches Music) which led me to participating in my very first 30-day challenge in fall 2020. I have done every 30-day challenge she has hosted since then, including a guitar challenge (I only have two guitars, so don’t worry. Ukulele are much cheaper).
In fall 2021, I started an ukulele Instagram account @lumchanukulele for these challenges. You can witness all of my trials and tribulations and hopefully some successes there. The last challenge finished at the end of September 2022 and damn was it hard. Sometimes I wondered why was I doing this to myself again.
Every time I took up a challenge, especially ones where I recorded myself playing, I started positive and ready to go, but by the end, I was sick of playing, sick of recording, just tired of the pressure I had put on myself.
And yet, I keep doing it. I will be honest, this last one made me rethink the whole daily recording thing. It’s nice to have a record of my improvement but I think maybe once every three days might be best.
If you’ve gotten this far, you are probably wondering what does this have to do with writing. Well, nothing and everything, I guess. Like doodling, playing the ukulele offers my brain a different kind of workout, allowing my writer brain a rest for a moment, maybe offering it some inspiration. Learning new chords, songs, strumming, picking and percussive patterns, or chord melody, are great ways to flex those creative muscles.
I think there are so many overlaps between being a musician and being a writer. We all have favorite instruments we use – pens, pencils, journals, laptops, tablets, typewriters – some are better than others, and some no matter how much you change the lead, ink, sheafs of paper inside it, keyboards, processors, software, are just not good and may make you stop writing, or make you stop playing the ukulele, the guitar, the kazoo.
All I can say is don’t give up just because the instrument you are using isn’t the right one yet. You are your best instrument anyway.
Bonus Prompt: Write about your first musical experience. Were you singing, playing the recorder, playing the piano, the cello? How did you feel? What did it smell like? Was it school? Church? Make it short – less than 300 words if you can.
Bonus Bonus Prompt: Get an ukulele! Find a YouTuber (or someone on TikTok) and start playing! It can be as easy or as hard as you want it to be. Try a challenge! You know I am a big fan of those.
As always, mahalo nui loa for sharing space with me! I wish you all the creativity! Sending light and love!
Read Melissa’s other work here at Reckon:
Fiction – Coming Home
Flexing My Creative Muscles: Art Nights, Line Art, & Daily Doodles
Melissa Llanes Brownlee
Melissa Llanes Brownlee (she/her), a native Hawaiian writer, living in Japan, has work published or forthcoming in Smokelong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, The Razor, Ruby Literature, Milk Candy Review, Cotton Xenomorph, Lost Balloon, Best Small Fictions 2021, and Best Microfiction 2022. Read Hard Skin, her short story collection, from Juventud Press. She doodles on Instagram and tweets @lumchanmfa. She posts the occasional ukulele video on Instagram @lumchanukulele and talks story at www.melissallanesbrownlee.com.