The ukulele. From the presentation of the year project

By Paul Bátkai, September 2021

Hello, I am Paul Bátkai and I would like to welcome you to my year project. The topic I am presenting to you is the ukulele. First we will talk about the history of the instrument and then come to the second point, the construction of a ukulele, which is what I am most looking forward to. My presentation in the theoretical part includes not only the history of the instrument, but also my history and experiences with the ukulele.

Now you’re probably asking yourself something like: what can you do with it anyway? And does the thing become any bigger?

The ukulele is a four-stringed instrument and is shaped like a guitar. It is an instrument in its own right and not a small guitar. I mention this so that your next conversation with a ukulele player doesn’t end in embarrassment. The ukulele is an instrument that has become extremely popular in the last two decades. For example, through performers who have taken songs in which the ukulele is played to the top of the charts.

One of the most famous songs is “Somewhere over the Rainbow” by Israel Kamakawiw’ole, which made him and the ukulele famous worldwide. In Hawaii, the ukulele has a firm place in music, as it has been present in the culture there for a long time and carries with it an interesting history: the beginning of its history can be dated to 23 August 1879, when the British ship “Raavenscraag” with 423 emigrants from the Portuguese island of Madeira docked in Honolulu, Hawaii, after four months at sea. João Fernández – who brought with him the earlier form of the ukulele, namely the braguinha which is common in Madeira – was also on the ship and was very happy to have arrived in one piece. He played Portuguese folk songs at the port of Hawaii which impressed the inhabitants very much, but especially his fast playing was marvelled at.

This is how the ukulele got its name, which consists of two Hawaiian words: “Uku” and “Lele”, translating as “jumping flea”. In Hawaii, the word ukulele is heard every day and it is the most played instrument there. Many Hawaiian songs are sung to the ukulele. Not only because it is part of the culture but because it clears the mind and exerts a calming influence – its melodies awaken joy and are real earworms. The Hawaiian language sounds simple because the alphabet consists of only twelve sounds namely a, e, i, o, u, p, k, m, n, v, w, l, and h, whereby v and w are pronounced the same. The many vowels among the only 13 letters lend lightness and openness to the sound of the language. When a Hawaiian sings and plays the ukulele, they are speaking the language of the islands and seas of Hawaii; it is the language of joy and freedom.

How I came to the ukulele

The story of how I took up the ukulele began a long time ago, when the sky was still blue and the grass was green, with a completely different instrument. I started playing the piano when I was about seven years old, as you can guess, not by choice. Month after month, year after year, I was tied to the piano stool. After eight years, I was finally freed from slavery. My parents told me that I would later regret not being able to play an instrument. So I had to think of something to rid myself of the piano. On the Internet, I came across the music video “Somewhere over the rainbow” with Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and his ukulele. The little melodious instrument spoke to me. So my argument – new instrument, new happiness – went down well with my parents. With no previous experience, I ordered a ukulele that I liked. When it arrived, I was shocked by the instrument and I still remember saying sorrowfully, “What have I done to myself.”

I didn’t know how to start, so I watched videos on how to do it, which helped me. I had a lot of fun with it, practising in my room from morning till night as if I were in quarantine. After four days I had learnt “Somewhere over the rainbow”. I played it for my parents, they seemed not only convinced but as if they had won the lottery. I kept practising and practising – and I still enjoy it to this day. I practise without a teacher, with little written music. I like to play freely by ear. I think the freedom gives the sound, written music does not give freedom.

There are different sized ukuleles and different sized scales: soprano, concert, tenor, baritone. The scale length is the distance from the nut to the bridge. For the different sizes of ukulele it is always in proportion to the overall length of the instrument. Four ukulele sizes, four different scales with different sounds. The small soprano ukulele sounds rather bright and pointed, while the largest ukulele, the baritone, sounds deep and space-filling. The difference is enormous, like comparing a small bell with a church bell. But this difference can also be explained by different high or low tunings.  Apart from the four ukuleles, there are also special ukuleles that are rather rare. For example, even smaller sizes, like sopranino and sopranissimo, which are more of a joke, because they are beyond very, very small. There are also five-, six- and eight-stringed ukuleles, from the concert or tenor size upwards. However, these are the exception and are hardly to be found in Europe.

What distinguishes the ukulele from other instruments?

The ukulele already has basic visual differences to other instruments that can be noticed at first glance. Its special advantage is its size, you can take it everywhere. Due to the shorter strings, a sound can be produced that is different from all other instruments. The sequence of the strings is also different: on the guitar, the top string is the lowest, the next string is higher, the next higher again and so on. The order of the sounds of the guitar is structured in the same way as the piano, where the lowest note is played on the left side and the highest note on the right side.

On the ukulele, it starts with a high string and is followed directly by the lowest. Only from the third string onwards is the tone sequence built up from low to high, just like on the guitar. It is not only the sequence of sounds that contributes to a different sound, but also the four strings. That makes this instrument unique.

The practical part

I have also built a ukulele. It’s not just any ukulele but my own ukulele which I made over several months as a unique item. In my presentation there are a few pictures that show what makes my ukulele unique.

About the author: Paul Batkei is a pupil (class 12) at the Mannheim-Neckarau Free Waldorf School.


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