Ukulele 101

Papeete, Tahiti, Society Islands, French Polynesia

As previously mentioned, music is a major part of these peoples’ lives.

Outside the market and along the main drag of the city is a bank that more importantly serves as the unofficial gathering place for the Papeete street band.  Guitars, ukuleles, a guy with a plastic garbage can bass and a bottle cap maracas.  We already knew Polynesians had a knack for musical adaptation and the Tahitians did not disappoint.  This informal gathering of street performers have been playing daily long enough to be in most of the tourist and travel books as a recommended destination.  They’re really that good.

Listening to these guys inspired us to learn more about their version of the ukulele.  As we mentioned before in our virtual ukulele Christmas card there are 2 kinds of ukulele: the Hawaiian and the Tahitian.

The ukulele Greg carries around is the “tiny guitar” that most Americans think of when they picture island music.  It is thicker and produces a lower note.  Most Polynesians refer to it as a “Kamika” due to the fact that a popular brand of Hawaiian ukulele is made by that brand.  It’s like calling a cotton ear swab a “Q-tip.”

While in Tahiti we picked up a Tahitian ukulele for Tiffany.  This ukulele is longer than the Hawaiian and much thinner.  It is made out of solid wood and though both have 4 stringed notes and both are tuned to the same notes, the Polynesian ukulele’s sound is more akin to a banjo in tone.  Also, the Polynesian ukulele has 4 double strings and is strung with common fishing wire instead of specialized instrument strings.

The ukulele itself is in fact a newcomer to Polynesian music.  According to what we have been told by the locals, this is thanks to Portuguese sailors and immigrants.  Original Polynesians did not use stringed instruments.  They instead made use of percussion instruments and wind instruments carved from wood.  When the Portuguese sailors and later immigrants showed the Polynesians their stringed instruments, the Polynesians enjoyed the music and wanted their own.  So were the beginnings of the ukulele, from which the two subsets have further developed.

We also noticed something unusual while walking around the city regarding music.  While we knew the Polynesian people had an affinity for dance music, what we did not realize before was that Polynesian kids seem to prefer boom boxes to earphones.

It was a big shift from the San Francisco bay area, where no matter where you were, people would have their earphones in and be listening to music or talking on their phone.  By sticking those buds in their ears they had managed to completely segregate themselves from the people around them.  It always seemed…well, wrong really.  Just wrong and a bit rude, not to mention somewhat unsafe, to shut yourself off completely from society while transiting through it.  Felt like they had missed an opportunity to interact with the world around them.  In Polynesian society though, all the teenagers walk around with their IPods plugged into speakers blaring music.  Walking down the street you get quite the smorgasbord of musical variety and it’s a great way to keep up on local musical trends.  We suppose, in a sense, it’s more rude to play your music in public than to wall yourself off from society with it but it seemed less rude in our minds.  Perhaps it was because we didn’t have an important cell phone call at the time or because we’re on vacation but it just seemed more…just more social to have a group of people listening to the same music and talking than to have a group of people standing around all intentionally ignoring each other.

Which would you prefer?

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6 Responses to Ukulele 101

  1. Michael Lockridge says:

    In my neighborhood, people but really big “boom boxes” in their cars and cruise…

  2. Sharon Spencer says:

    Dear Greg and Tif,
    I have been looking at your Blog trying to take lessons from your outstanding blog, plus just enjoying keeping us with you all. We leave for Africa on June 2nd and will gone 10 weeks, and I wanted to blog our pictures and video. It has been an unhill learning curve, but I do have a blog now and I need to continue to practice with it. I had no idea that you could put so many tags on a blog. I love your videos they are great are you using your little flip camera that you had at the wedding? We bought one after the wedding to take with us. I loved your underwater video that was GREAT.

    • Greg says:

      Hey Mrs. Spencer!

      Thanks for the compliment and big thing about Africa: make sure people iron your underwear. My mom went a few years back and she said they had to iron her underwear or some sort of bug gets into them. So yeah, kinda awkward but I thought you should know. 😉

      For the vids, yeah, we use the camera you saw us using at the wedding. We post them up to youtube and then link them to the blog. If you have any questions on how we do it, we’d be happy to answer them. What’s your blog? Oh, be forewarned, you take a lot of video and have to do a lot of editing to get good stuff. It’s a big project that takes a time commitment. Be sure to balance traveling with blogging, a challenge we all face. 😉

  3. Mike B says:

    I like the sharing side of things, but then again I am not very quiet.

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