BRISTOL — After a day of luaus and roving through Hawaii’s scenic vistas, Jim and Jennifer Vyhnak ducked into the first place they saw with air conditioning: Scotty’s Music shop in Kalaheo, Hawaii. Not only did the shop have air conditioning, but hanging just beyond the door were walls of peculiar-looking instruments. The shop owner immediately plucked one of the “miniature guitars” off the wall and handed it to the couple.
“Almost every tourist gets a ukulele,” she told Jim. “But few ever actually play it.”
The first strum across a ukulele’s neck is unexpected. It is the sound of unrelenting joy; Jim’s knees jumped and bounced and he could feel his heart rise up.
Jennifer and Jim left the store empty handed, the melody of the strange little instrument plucking at their heartstrings. As the day slipped away, the couple, in a moment of “we just have to have it,” called the store to reserve the first ukulele they laid their hands on “as if they didn’t have a whole wall full of them or 40 more in the back room,” Jim said.
The next day, Jim and Jennifer picked up the instrument and began to finger the beginnings of a famous song by Hawaiian musician Israel Ka'ano'i Kamakawiwo'ole, a mix between "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" — the idea is said to have come to him in a dream.
Now, the Bristol, Vt., couple has taken their love of that little instrument to new lengths, founding the Vermont Ukulele Society and organizing the first ever Vermont Ukulele Festival, which took place in early August.
The approachable nature of the ukulele and its four little strings has carried the instrument’s melody across time. During the 19th century Portuguese immigrants brought the small guitar-like instrument to Hawaii where native islanders and their royalty both fell in love with it. And though the meaning of the word “ukulele” is disputed these days, when the queen of Hawaii, Queen Lili'uokalani, saw the instrument she called it “the gift that came home.”
“We love that one,” said Jennifer. “It certainly is a gift.”
Other more European translations say the word means “jumping flea.” Jim said that meaning may be derivative of the way the musician’s fingers jump on the strings, or strumming the strings like you’re shaking a flee off your palm, or finally the way the Portuguese musicians would jump about while they were playing the instrument.
The ukulele gained popularity in the U.S. during the early 20th century and became popular in Europe where most people play a cross between a banjo and a ukulele, a banjolele, which is popular with jazz bands and sounds more percussive than the traditional wooden figure-eight shaped ukulele. Some of the most valuable ukuleles, which may cost thousands of dollars, are made from koa, a Hawaiian wood known for its fine tone and attractive color and figure.
And it’s the ukulele’s strange appearance that attracts people to it initially, said Jennifer. “It’s like, oh, there’s that cute little instrument again! So you’re drawn to it by its looks.”
As a child in East Orange, N.J., Jennifer remembers seeing a ukulele around the house. Jennifer’s mother was mostly alone with the children, while her husband served in the Navy and spent more time away from home. She remembers her mother sitting down to play the ukulele.
“For Mom, I think the ukulele was her source of sanity, it was a way to reconnect to something that was joyful inside of herself,” said Jennifer. “There is something about the instrument that does create a joyful, comforting feeling to the people that play it. So I think for her, it was her therapy.”
Jim didn’t grow up playing musical instruments, though. After Jim's parents, as children, were forced by their schools to play instruments they could not choose, they did not want to subject him to the same painful experience. He was never encouraged to take a music lesson as a boy — and when his natural curiosity brought him close to music later in life, people were eager to discourage him, saying if he did not begin playing at a young age, he will never learn. But in college, Jim devoured every musical theory application class, appreciation class, anything he could get his hands on. Still, they told him “Jim, there are two kinds of people — people that make music and there are people who listen to music.”
“And that was horrifying to me, absolutely horrifying!” Jim said.
It wasn’t until Jim began learning old tunes on his first ukulele that the melodies from his childhood were lifted into memory. As he learned to play the ukulele, he remembered the old Hawaiian albums his mother used to play loudly when she cleaned the house.
“[The neighbors] knew when she was cleaning because it was all Hawaiian music all afternoon,” he said.
Today, the couple has brought the ukulele’s restorative melody to the area through the Vermont Ukulele Society. After the pair returned from Hawaii in 2006, they wanted to find other people to practice with. So they posted a sign at the Bristol Cliffs music store and it wasn’t until a few months later that two people responded. The new group started to meet in Lincoln once every other week.
“We thought there would be only two of three other players in Vermont,” said Jim. But as they continued to post notice about their meetings in the music store, more people contacted them.
The couple, with help from other Vermont Ukulele Society members, just put on the first Vermont Ukulele Festival on Aug. 1 and 2 at Carol’s Hungry Mind Café in Middlebury where people played and conducted workshops. They plan on making it an annual event in Addison County.
The group's members now teach beginner lessons for children and adults. They also offer classes through the Bristol Recreation Center. Along with performing locally at talent shows, Jennifer and Jim play at the Living Well Community Care Home in Bristol and Project Independence in Middlebury.
"When you play for older people, they remember stars like Ukulele "Ike" (Cliff Edwards - the voice of Jiminy Cricket), Roy Smeck and George Formby playing ukulele,” said Jim.
The couple has even played with Marilyn Monroe’s ukulele teacher, Bill Tapia, now 101 years old, who has strummed with the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Elvis Presley.
For older folks, learning a musical instrument or learning a language are two of the best things you can do to keep your mind active,” said Jim. Many of the chords are one-finger or two-finger chords, he said, and many older individuals with stroke damage are able to learn the instrument as part of their rehabilitation. It’s part of growing old gracefully,” Jim said.
The couple has both experienced first hand what music can do for the brain. For many years, Jim was the director of the Brain Injury Association of Vermont. And in 2005, Jennifer experienced a bad concussion. She said the ukulele has helped in her recovery. For the developmentally disabled adult who lives with Jim and Jennifer, the music provides another form of therapy.
“It’s really great healing therapy for those of us who might have health challenges,” Jennifer said.
And, Jennifer added, because the ukulele is so easy to learn, she has noticed that its popularity is gaining momentum, especially in difficult times.
“When there’s a lot of war or economic upheaval, where there’s a lot that people are worried about in the world, it seems that the little ukulele starts to come up and gain some popularity.”
They call it the instrument of the people, said Jennifer.
Looking back into history, Jim recounted the times of financial trouble or war where the ukulele came into popularity. After the Civil War, he said, ragtime music and early jazz was played with the ukulele. And after World War I came the “roaring twenties,” when musicians played ukuleles in double-breasted pinstriped suits and fedoras. Then the Great Depression in the 1930s produced Tin Pan Alley music, and after World War II, the famous Arthur Godfrey boomed across the radio and TV on his baritone ukulele. When Vietnam rolled around, said Jim, Tiny Tim kept the four-stringed spirit alive.
Though the ukulele’s popularity died out with the rise of rock’ n’ roll, Jim said the instrument is making a comeback in these troubling times.
“So it’s our theory that the ukulele seems to come up when people need a respite, they need to have a place to get together with other people and just create some simple joyful times for ourselves,” said Jennifer.
Jennifer and Jim hope to expand their ukulele experience in the future. Jim is now thinking about becoming a luthier, a person who makes ukuleles. He made his first ukulele from a kit made of mahogany. He plans on making his ukuleles solely out of Vermont woods — cherry, maple, butternut and walnut. Jennifer paints decorative "non-playing" ukuleles, which she will sell out of a store she plans to open in their house in Bristol called Ukulele Garden.
“We’re growing in all sorts of directions,” Jennifer said. “This is the dream, this is one of the fun dreams we’re working towards. The opportunities have been popping up effortlessly, it’s nothing that we’ve really had to plan, it just very organically has been coming up through our lives.”
And in some ways, said Jennifer, she really feels the ukulele chose them.
Visit the Vermont Ukulele Society's website at: www.vtukes.webs.com