Monday, July 16, 2012

Singing Down the Sun

Like the famous Agatha Christie mystery with the politically incorrect title, the guests at the cottage on Lake Michigan are disappearing day by day until only three are left now—me, my wife and one daughter. My exercise routine continues uninterrupted—the morning walk down the beach and up the big sand dune, the 1,000 stroke swim in the back or front lake, the eight to fifteen mile bike ride on back roads. Likewise, the daily trip to town for groceries, blogpost and e-mails, the time at the beach under the umbrella with books to devour. With the cooperation of beautiful weather, it has been the perfect summer routine to shed skin and reach some slumbering selves often buried under work.
But one thing has been noticeably missing—music.

Remember the ukelele I pulled out of my carry-on during my 9-hour layover at the Chicago airport?  While everyone walked by me oblivious to my implicit invitation to sit down and sing, I imagined everyone’s portable electronic devices replaced by ukeleles and huge jam sessions, chord-sharings, strumming techniques, happening at each gate. Face it, it would be great! And yes, yes, I know it’s practical to call your ride at the airport with your cell phone and okay, you can keep your cell phone when you get your ukelele, but come on, 90% of the calls made there are people just passing time and filling their insatiable need to feel connected. But don’t you think ukelele songfests would fill that need as well? Anybody with me on this one?

I bought my ukelele just after returning from Europe, inspired by my time on the bus in Nicaragua plunking away during long trips with the 8th graders. I had resisted the ukelele craze (now outranking the previous djembe and didjeridoo crazes), not from any particular stubbornness, but just because I was busy with other things. But after those bus trips, I was hooked, not only discovering some improvised styles that I liked, but loving the transportability and lightness and simplicity of the instrument.

The teacher in me can’t resist a little history here. It was a cab driver in Lisbon that told me the ukelele was originally inspired by a Portugese instrument brought to Hawaii by Portugese sailors. I’m out of Google range while writing this, but another storyteller I heard affirmed that fact. But of course, we mostly associate the instrument with Hawaii (where it is pronounce “oo-ke-le-le” instead of the more common, but mistaken, “you-ke-le-le.”) Indeed, one of the favorite songs from my recent jugband reunion was “Ukelele Lady” where the singer “used to linger by the moonlight on Honolulu Bay.” People outside of Hawaii mostly treated it as a novelty instrument, associated with strange people like Tiny Tim who "Tiptoed Through the Tulips" on the Johnny Carson show. Hard to know which was chicken and which egg, but the recent revival was certainly skyrocketed both by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the rise of virtuoso superstar Jake Shimabukuro. Besides performing musicians starting to take it more seriously, it is a music teacher’s dream, being cheap, portable and capable of accompanying some 10,000 songs with a mere three chords. At a recent Orff workshop, a third of the day was devoted to ukelele training.

So back to the story. With the social energy wound down, I took my little uke to the beach at sunset and sat on the dune trying to figure out chords beyond C, F and G. The ore boats were gliding across the light on the water (what my daughter Kerala called “the path to the golden sunset” in her 4th grade poem), some children down the beach were playing in the water, a deer bounded through the grasses. What’s that Wordsworth poem? “It is a beauteous evening, calm and free, the holy time is quiet as a nun, breathless with adoration. The broad sun is sinking down in its tranquility…”  I found an exciting E-minor, A, A-minor chord progression and the sun was setting as I plucked the strings. I felt like a reverse Orpheus, singing down the sun and closing out the day with music, feeling the night descend around me. As the last glow faded from the water’s horizon, the stars began to appear and grow as the darkness deepened, with a few shooting stars streaking across the constellations and a satellite or two moving slowly overhead.

And as always, never content to just appreciate the moment, I can't help but think, “Why don’t I do this every night? Why don’t we all?”

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