The road to McDonald’s Corners Community Centre was dusty and dry beneath the sweltering sun of a mid-July morning. From the first of May to Thanksgiving, the big backyard of this retired backwoods schoolhouse would play roost for a congregation of Canadian farmers and farm owners. They would travel from every crossroad in Lanark County to set up shop beneath white country fair tents or rustic wooden kiosks, showcasing another successful year’s harvest and toil.
My godparents had called our family to the market. They run Red Dog Farm, their out-of-the-way home north of Hopetown that, this year, bore a fine selection of maple syrup and clickity-clacks (boiled wool slippers). Between purveyors of alpaca wool products and woodcarvings, my godmother Beata looked after the stand, sitting in her lawn chair and strumming a ukulele.
This was my introduction.
Her instrument was an unusually tiny aqua-green affair, but it did its best to compete with the folk trio playing next to the wood-fire kiln baking pizza a short distance away. Its sound was at once familiar and unequivocally cheery. It seemed to perfectly embody godfather Ian’s personal motto: “Every day is a sunny day.”
My family reciprocated her enthusiasm for her newfound pastime, and wanted to know more. She told us she was taught by David Newland, who had hosted a workshop in the community centre that stood before us. He was able to teach his class all the basics of the ukulele in a mere four hours, and judging from her playing, it seemed like she was more than well on her way.
My mother loved the idea of learning the ukulele, and Beata agreed to give her a few pointers. My sister and I took up the opportunity to learn a new instrument, and my father, himself an experienced guitarist, joined us. Soon, we were all gathered in the community centre for a workshop of our own.
The ukulele was passed between my mother, my sister, and me, and we’d take turns placing fingers on different frets trying to plunk out chords. Whenever it came to me, I always had trouble holding it comfortably. There I was, a guy who’d spent 13 years playing piano, cradling this innocent, seemingly proto-guitar in his arms.
I ended up learning four chords: C, F, G, and C7; the root, fourth, and fifth chords in the key of C, plus the dominant seventh in the key of F.
It might seem scant, but you’d be surprised how versatile these four chords are. This is like the traditional folk tune essence; chances are if you know any old folk song, you can play it in the key of C with these four chords.
It might not be everything, but this doesn’t take four hours.
The week after our market visit, my mother received a ukulele for her birthday. This happened four months ago, and given her responsibilities, she hasn’t really touched it since.
Maybe now’s as good a time as any to dust it off and pick it up again. It might make the days a little bit sunnier.
Stuart Harris is a 20-year-old Professional Writing student at Algonquin College with thirteen years of music experience under his belt. He’s a pianist trained in classical and jazz idioms who wants to parlay his knowledge into teaching himself an alien instrument and share his observations with you. Keep strummin’!
Check out Ukulele Hunt for further exploration