THE word “ukelele” derives from two Hawaiian words meaning “flea” and “jump”As well, Hawaiian uke and slack-key guitar maestro, Jeff Peterson, tells me, we are all pronouncing it the wrong way – it should sound more like “ookoolaylay” and its sound resembles that of a jumping flea.
You’ll be able to pick up this and other useful facts and skills if you join Peterson’s two-day masterclass on April 16 and 17 in the lead up to the National Folk Festival.
His third visit, he’ll also be playing his guitar on the festival stage with Australian shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute) master, Riley Lee, co-founder of the drumming ensemble Taikoz.
While Peterson still lives in a ranch on the island of Maui surrounded by imported eucalyptus trees that “give it the feel of the Canberra region”, Lee lives in Manly, but he comes from Hawaii, moving to Australia years ago when Sydney University offered him a Ph.D. scholarship.
The shakuhachi is an ancient instrument of great refinement and intensity in performance, but the slack-key guitar, of which Peterson is the acknowledged world master, involves loosening the keys in a way that allowed the Hawaiians to play in the “Aloha spirit”.
Traditional music on the islands involved, he says, “mainly a lot of percussion and chanting, which was intense and powerful”, but the guitar was more relaxed, as Hawaiians adopted what is known as the “nahenahe” style of singing, soothing, but beautiful, with a very strong quality.
But don’t Peterson and Lee occupy two ends of the musical spectrum – relaxation and intensity?“Just think of the relaxing soothing quality of the slack-key and think of the way the shakuhachi can be very lyrical and its emotions very close to the human voice,” Peterson suggests.
Lee confirms this, by phone from Manly, also making the point that traditionally, stringed instruments “just go together”, with the guitar, for instance, providing a rhythmical and harmonic background to the more ethereal sound of the flute.
This accounts for the enormous success of the album he and Peterson put down together a few years ago – “Bamboo Slack Key”.
While he’s in town, Lee will be holding breathing workshops, but his main focus right now is helping to organise Taikoz’s first tour of the US, playing Honolulu, Santa Rosa, Sacramento and the World Taiko Gathering in Los Angeles.
Peterson says that while he will be playing the guitar in his concerts with Lee, “just for fun”, he might play the ukelele as well.
So why is there a world-wide craze for the uke, including here in Canberra?
“There’s something very special about an instrument that you can pick up and start strumming,” he says. “It’s one of the most user-friendly instruments in the world, it brings people together.”
The National Folk Festival, Exhibition Park in Canberra, April 17-21