It’s a typical early November fall-leaning-toward-winter day in Chicago; most of the trees have shed their leaves, the wind is blowing and pedestrians are pulling their jackets tightly around themselves and dreading the upcoming cold. But inside a small, brightly painted studio space in the Old Town School of Folk Music’s East Building in Lincoln Square, a group of fifteen students are circled around an exuberant instructor, carefully strumming and plucking the strings of miniature guitars as if the weather report were seventy-five and sunny with a slight chance of rain.
The instruments are `ukuleles (which you should absolutely never refer to as miniature guitars) and the instructor is Lanialoha Lee (Lani to her students), a buoyant Hawaiian woman who laughs loudly, easily and often and takes both her Pacific Island and Midwestern roots seriously. She’s been playing the `ukulele (among other instruments) for decades and teaching at Old Town for sixteen years now, slowly expanding her repertoire from a single `ukulele class in the fall of 1996 to almost a dozen Polynesian-centered offerings this fall, including a range of hula and `ukulele classes at different skill levels. The class I’m visiting tonight is beginner-level `Ukulele 1 and this is their first lesson (which is why most of the strumming doesn’t sound exactly melodic).
Before going any farther, you need to know two things. First, you need to know that it’s pronounced “ooh-koo-lele.” That little apostrophe before the “u” is an `okina, which helps give the “u” a more glottal stop. The second thing you need to know, according to Lee, is that if you’re going to be walking around pronouncing it correctly, you better at least be able to “punch out” at least one good Hawaiian tune. (So feel free to continue referring to it as a “you-ka-lay-lee” for a little bit longer.) You can also just call it an “uke” for short (pronounced like it rhymes with “duke”) which is what Lee does most of the time, especially when she’s spouting memorable lines like “A loud uke can’t be wrong!” or “You don’t need the guitar! The uke is all you need: two strings less!”
To start the class off, Lee asks each student to share why they’ve enrolled in the class and give some background on themselves and their relationship to the `ukulele. And most of the students are surprisingly effusive about their fledgling bonds to these little instruments. One student bought a `ukulele on a whim on a trip to Hawaii and fell in love with it; another saw Eddie Vedder playing one and realized it could actually be “cool.” A young woman who loves horror movies was hooked after hearing Tiny Tim’s version of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in the movie “Insidious.” And several students just want to jam with their friends. Everyone seems to hold their `ukulele close to their chests while speaking, as if it’s a pet or a cherished heirloom.
And this is why Lee starts all level-one classes this way. “There’s some connection,” she says. “It really opens up the stories and it tells me that I’m here for the right reason.” That reason isn’t just to teach pasty Chicagoans how to strum a tiny stringed instrument developed in Hawaii in the late nineteenth century, but to instill in each of them a bit of Hawaiian culture and maybe even a little “aloha.” And what exactly is aloha? Now that’s a more complicated question than you might think.
Commonly used by us mainlanders to mean “hello” and “goodbye,” the Hawaiian Dictionary lists more than twenty English translations for the word “aloha,” including compassion, kindness, charity, grace and, of course, salutation. And it’s safe to say that Lee uses the word in each of those ways and several more throughout her lessons. As she lectures, it quickly becomes clear that she especially has aloha for her grandmother, who she credits with instilling in her a lifelong dedication to preserving and sharing island culture. “I just don’t think I would be here today if it wasn’t for my grandmother’s guidance,” she says.
While Lee was growing up in Buffalo Grove as a third-generation descendant of the first Polynesians who migrated to the Midwest, her parents, in an attempt to keep her connected to their Hawaiian heritage, asked her grandmother to come live with them. While she was with them, she taught Lee about the cultural history of her ancestors. Just after Lee started high school, her grandmother moved back to Keaukaha (just outside of Hilo, on the island of Hawaii). At first Lee felt like her teachings had been cut short, but then she realized that she needed to put her learnings into practice and also travel to Hawaii for a deeper understanding of Hawaiiana. “And I think that the best place to receive knowledge about the culture is to be at home. And that to me is home,” she says now of Keaukaha, though she’s still a Midwestern girl at heart (and address).
Building on what she learned from her grandmother, Lee went on to earn a degree in music education from VanderCook College and the University of Southern Colorado, and has since made it her duty to provide an outlet for traditional Hawaiiana in the Midwest. But before settling in at Old Town and developing a curriculum of culture, she spent many years touring, performing and making music, launching Pacific Soundz Productions while still in college. “It took a decade, easy, before I came to the realization that I was still doing things like anyone else in the entertainment industry,” she recalls. “When I realized that I needed to go in the direction of nonprofit organization, that would really change everything.”
She started working with Urban Gateways in 1995, developing a program to teach K-12 students about the cultures of Hawaii, New Zealand and Tahiti. The success of her program there led her to seek a home base, which she found at the Old Town School shortly thereafter, initially by starting that first `ukulele class. “I chose the uke because it was an easier pitch,” she laughs. “It was more familiar than my having to talk heavy words about ancient hula and all of this. And you can’t go wrong when you say, ‘Well, I have a folk instrument right here and you don’t have it in your program. And may I?’” More than 1,500 students later, Lee is happy to see a burgeoning `ukulele scene growing up in Chicago.
“From my standpoint, I’ve been here for sixteen years,” Lani laughs. “I just don’t know what took everyone so long!”
In May, during the inaugural Festival of Aloha, which she coordinated, Lee attempted to gather as many members of the `uke scene together as she could, seeking to break the Guinness World Record for the largest number of `ukulele players in one place. Though they fell short of the record (which was 1,378 at the time), Lee plans to try again next year. “People said it’s great that we didn’t get it the first time because then the second year would be such a drop from this high of setting a record.” In 2013, though, it may be a bit more challenging. “Soon after we attempted it, Japan did it and they broke it… so it’s like 2,200 now. We’ll be working at this for a little while.”
Meanwhile, others are promoting the `uke as well. Most notably, the Chicago Ukulele Cabaret was started five years ago after Michael Simons, inspired by a show called “Ukulele Cabaret” that he saw in New York City, teamed up with Tony Bianchi (a student of Lanialoha Lee) and decided to set up a recurring open mic just for “ukers.” Since then, the duo has been consistently coordinating shows at Silvie’s Lounge in North Center, with only one rule: to be included, an act must feature the `ukulele. Each show follows a theme (horror, sci-fi, soundtracks, etc.) and each group or solo act can play for a total of fifteen minutes or three songs. Shows tend to draw a lot of performers, usually lasting around five hours and are always free to the public.
Musing on the draw of the instrument, Bianchi describes the `ukulele as a “very approachable and democratic instrument.” Something anyone can learn how to play. “It’s versatile enough to play many different kinds of music,” he adds. “More importantly, the sound of the instrument just makes people happy!” The accessibility seems to be a major selling point for uke enthusiasts. Maris Grossman, one of Lee’s current students, compares it favorably to her guitar: “I bought a guitar when I was sixteen. I probably pick it up once a year. The ukulele is lighter and friendlier. It’s hard not to pick it up if it’s nearby!” And as Lee excitedly informs her students in class, “You can’t be sad if you have an uke in your hand!”
Back in `Ukulele 1, it’s clear some of these students have not yet tuned their instruments up (and may not know how), while others are raring to go, having already spent time playing in bands or `uke troupes. But regardless of skill level, all students must start with the initial class. “I hold to the prerequisite,” says Lee. “You may not come into the second level and not have acquired the same values that I’ve instilled in the students here.” Because again, it’s not just a class on how to play the `ukulele. It’s a class on how to appreciate the `ukulele, Hawaiian style. And if a student doesn’t have the proper strum down or the proper method for holding the instrument, then they’re not ready for the next level of training. Often students will even take the first level a few times before moving on to the second, Lani says. “I’m good at holding it down. Sometimes I have to protect the culture. That’s what we’re doing.”
And to Lee, part of protecting the culture is reminding people of the roots of the `ukulele, and drawing people’s eyes (and ears) to both traditional and more contemporary Hawaiian music and performers. “I now wish to raise awareness of these other people and through the program here remind everyone that it didn’t start here. It did not start with all these indie-pop bands,” Lee explains, referencing bands that now make use of the `ukulele. “And I’m concerned with people remembering the origin of this instrument and where it all began.”
As someone who spent a few years of my childhood on the rural island of Molokai (often called “The Most Hawaiian Island”), I feel pretty familiar with many Hawaiian bands. I point out to Lee that even in a time when so much music is readily available online, it’s still fairly difficult to find legitimate Hawaiian music outside of the islands (aside from the venerable Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose 1993 album “Facing Future” is still a huge seller, due to the popularity of his hauntingly beautiful “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” medley). Not only are concerts obviously tough to come by, but even getting the albums can be tougher than you might think.
“Yeah man,” Lee quickly agrees, “I gotta change that. That’s my new mission.” And thanks to a $15,000 grant that she recently received from 3Arts, a nonprofit organization that works to “sustain and promote Chicago artists,” she has more resources to work toward that goal. The grant comes with “no strings attached” (pun intended?) and is awarded to artists “producing exemplary work in the performing, teaching and visual arts.” Lee’s potential plans for the grant include recording her first album and wrapping up a project which will “package some of these high-end power strums that you can only receive here at the Old Town School” to get her `uke lessons into the open.
“I want to do my part to try to at least raise awareness from a distance,” Lee explains. “I’m not the guy that can change the world. I’m just a point here abroad, geographically centered on this huge island and I want to help guide the Old Town on making good decisions on who we bring in to represent our cultures.”
And by exposing students and audiences to authentic Hawaiiana, she’s hoping to expand people’s understanding of the `ukulele and Polynesian culture in general. In her own words, she hopes to “rebuild people’s knowledge and then over time affect the audience expectation.” In layman’s terms she’s striving to get audiences that don’t come to a `ukulele show expecting to hear Don Ho or “Mele Kalikimaka.” To educate students who will then plan to travel outside of their resorts to hear local music while on vacation. And she’s already seeing that change in the types of requests she gets. “I’ve started to see that people are not asking me for ‘Tiny Bubbles.’ People don’t ask me for ‘Hukilau,’” she declares proudly, referencing the 1948 Jack Owens tune “The Hukilau Song.”
At May’s Festival of Aloha, Lee was able to bring in Jason Arimoto, Darlene Ahuna and six-time Grammy winner Daniel Ho, while also performing with her band, Aloha Lives! “I’ve taken the dance line out of my shows,” she says, smiling. “I just center the group around the `uke and punch out songs from Tahiti, Samoa, Tokelau, Hawaii… Because the music is so beautiful but most of us can’t see past the dance line.”
All of this isn’t to say that Lee doesn’t have much aloha for anyone that’s interested in the `uke because they want to learn to play a song they heard on the radio. In fact, that’s what many of her students are initially looking for. “I’m here to promote Pacific Island culture. That’s what I’m here for,” she says. “But it’s okay if they didn’t know that. It’s still gonna change their lives. And if I can continue to do that, then I have done my job. They’re still learning `uke and they can take it beyond what the repertoire is here.”
And once you’ve heard the way that Lee picks a song apart while explaining it or strummed along with her to a traditional Hawaiian song like “E Huli Makou” (the song all students learn on the first day of class), it’s hard to look at the `ukulele in the same way. It no longer seems like a miniature guitar or a novelty instrument. It’s a connection to an island culture that most of us haoles will never fully understand. Lee manages to make her lessons both approachable and fulfilling while also sliding in the appropriate tones of respect. And at the end of the day, whether you’re playing “Henehene Kou ‘Aka” or “Call Me, Maybe” if you’re using an `uke to do it, then Lanialoha Lee is happy. “I love the passion in people,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be Hawaiian music!”