Ukuleles bring the islands to Tukwila

Mar 29, 2011

The little ukulele is having a moment in the spotlight. It has come a long way since Tiny Tim tiptoed through the tulips. 

Today, this petite cousin of the guitar is being played by country music star Taylor Swift and is very popular with indie rock bands.  At some Northwest high schools, the happy music made by this inexpensive and portable instrument  is becoming as common as the sound of the bell ringing for the next class.

One such place is Foster High School in the Tukwila School District.                    

Seventeen-year-old Ryan Javier holds his ukulele up to his chest, close to his heart. He is in love.

“This right here is my ukulele. It’s my most prized possession.”

Ryan is one of the many students at Foster High who carry their ukuleles around with them where ever they go.

They learn from their families, each other and especially YouTube.  They watch performers, such as Jake Shimabukuro, who is considered one of the best ukulele players these days.  Foster kids watch his posts so they can  learn from him.

Ryan’s friend, junior Sam Paloka, whose family is from Tonga, is one of the school’s best players.

“I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just if I don’t bring my uke to school, it’s like I’m missing something. Like I always have to have it with me where ever I go. Maybe it’s just something to keep my hands busy or something. But I always have it,” Paloka said. 

Most of us can’t walk without moving our arms. For these guys, they can’t talk without strumming their ukuleles. Foster is about as diverse as you can get. It has one of the most international student bodies in the United States. The students are from more than 30 different countries. The South Pacific is represented well here and students say the ukulele is a connection to their roots.

Even though the instrument was invented by the Portuguese, at the turn of the last century, it’s been embraced by the island nations. Colleen Noell teaches history at Foster. She knows when her islander students are coming into the classroom, because she can hear the music getting closer.   

"I’ve got probably half a dozen that come in playing the ukulele throughout the day. And without anything really being said, they’ll look at you and if it’s an inappropriate time they’ll set it down, and if they’re done with their work and they pick it up and they just play a little bit, it’s fine. It’s very subtle, but it calms the whole classroom,” Noell said.   

This has been going on for a year and a half. Noell noted it all started after a tsunami hit the Kingdom of Tonga in 2009.

“We were trying so hard to help those kids because they didn’t know what had happened and news was slow coming out. And if that helped then it was like let them play their ukuleles, which cares? So we kind of embraced it all over the school and it’s continued,” Noell said.

When the tsunami happened, the islander students at Foster connected with singer-songwriter Amos Miller, who is a teacher with Arts Corps in Seattle. The organization gets minority and low-income students involved in the visual and performing arts.  Miller says the ukulele is a fabulous way to reach kids who are having a hard time.

“The ukulele is cheap, it’s portable, it’s small, and it functions very similar to a guitar. It’s reminiscent of music from the islands and if you were to come to this country without a lot of resources and trying to work stuff out, one ukulele can go a long way," according to Miller.

Miller has seen students who have been struggling in school start to get better grades, better attendance and behave in the classroom once they start playing the ukulele. And from there, he says the uke acts as a sort of gateway instrument for kids. They often move onto the guitar, the drums, and the piano.

It’s a little early to tell if this is happening at Foster High School. One thing is certain, ukulele fever is spreading. Kids can be found all over the school strumming a tune. Sam and Ryan usually get requests for lessons in the cafeteria.

“At first it was just like a couple of islanders playing one uke, then somebody will buy their first uke, then one of our Mexican friends bought a uke. We’ve got Asian people playing the uke, we’ve got black people playing, people from Africa trying to learn it. It’s cool, it’s like a unification instrument that unites all kinds of diverse, especially at Foster because it’s a diverse school."

Most of the kids playing are boys. Ryan Javier says there’s a very obvious reason for that.

"The girls like the uke. Every time you go somewhere with the uke there are girls surrounding..." Sixteen year old Emina Dasic is one of them.

“I love it! It’s so cute! It just calms us all down, because it’s something we can all relate to, even if teachers don’t like it sometimes, we do,” said Dasic.

Girls do like to play the uke. One of the most popular performers today is Julia Nunes, who is touring the country. She performed at the Vera Project in Seattle earlier this year.

So who knows when it will suddenly become un-cool to walk around with a ukulele at Foster High School, or if the kids will move onto other instruments. Other cheap, portable instruments like say a recorder just don’t seem to measure up.

Ryan Javier says he has no plans to give up the uke. In fact he says whatever his senior graduation project is going to be, he will make sure it involves his ukulele.

Additional information about the ukulele:

Seattle Ukulele Players Association

Dusty Strings