Ukulele Resurgence: An Interview with Jason Valleau of the Polyjesters

July 01, 2015

A recent debate on CBC Radio’s q featured renowned ukulele player and teacher, James Hill, in a face off against longtime educator and recorder aficionado, Denise Gagne. A debate over whether ukulele should replace recorder as the classroom instrument of choice ended in an online poll where CBC listeners voted 61 percent in favour of the ukulele. This July, the National Music Centre (NMC) will host the 10th annual Calgary Folk Bootcamp, a chance for amateur and pro musicians to learn from Folk Festival’s artists. Of all the workshops, ukulele was the first to sell out. The humble ukulele has proven that it’s not just a gateway instrument to the guitar, but stands on its own in year-end school concerts and folk music festivals across the country. To shed more light on the uke’s popularity and his sold-out Folk Bootcamp Workshop, NMC interviewed Jason Valleau of the Polyjesters.

Your Folk Bootcamp workshop is sold out! Why do you think ukulele is so popular?

Personally, I find the uke appealing as I don’t need to plug it in or fuss with it much beyond tuning. It fits into an overhead compartment and is fun, cute and never boring…The uke is seeping into modern folk groups and movie soundtracks not merely as kitsch seasoning but as viable and reputable display of excellence. It also conjures up images of pig roasts and floral shirts while sipping from coconuts with the sounds of ocean waves and palm trees. In fact, who wouldn’t want to play this instrument?

How were you introduced to the ukulele?

After losing part of a finger in a farming accident, my grandfather, Roy Valleau, decided that four strings might be easier than the six he was used to. It changed the course of his musical life. My whole upbringing was filled with ukuleles ringing out old and almost forgotten melodies. Ukulele was the first instrument taught in my house when my brother and I were kids and became a portable symphony throughout my entire life. It is my go-to instrument for woodshedding songs, studying chordal movement, or capturing a composed melody.

What is the signature song that showcases the instrument?

Although there are many signature songs for each new generation that brings the uke to the forefront, the uke is somehow timeless. My grandpa’s generation remembers Tiny Tim’s “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” and it seems today’s youth are latching on to James Hill or Jake Shimabukuro for their virtuosic renditions of timeless cover tunes, such as “Billy Jean” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

What are the benefits of learning ukulele?

The ukulele can teach you musicianship skills without realizing that you’re ‘learning.’ It can be your best tool to accompany yourself or someone else, equipped with a basic collection of learned chords and a few strumming techniques. It can help you to understand some of the mathematical complexities in music and how anyone with a little patience can begin a journey of discovery by playing a few chords on something that at first glance looks like a toy.

What has been the coolest thing you’ve done because of your uke playing?

The ukulele has been my passport into wild adventures around the globe. I played the upright bass professionally on a cruise ship that docked into Rio de Janeiro for several days. Equipped with a baritone ukulele and a Russian friend with a flute, we both bounced off the boat and headed into the city. We played our instruments as we walked through the streets being greeted by several colourful characters that could sing along with the familiar songs of our impromptu parade. After several songs in cafes, bars and a long stint at the beach we suddenly found ourselves in a less than desirable part of town. It was here that I realized that my ukulele was powerful. We were welcomed into places that very few sunburnt tourists have ever seen. All it took was for two lost musicians to sing for their supper. Thinking back on this experience it probably helped that the ukulele was once a Portuguese instrument called the ‘quatro’ that made its way to the Polynesian Islands and eventually into the hands of the Hawaiians who eventually jazzified it with influence from America who eventually fused with Brazilian music in the form of the bossa nova, Brazil’s national music, but who’s counting? Behold, the circle of Uke.

Any advice for students learning to play ukulele?

Learning music or an instrument is much like learning a second language. You can learn to hear language and understand or feel its meaning, you can then learn to speak it yourself, and you can eventually learn to write it and perhaps make up your own content. With a uke you can start to communicate almost instantaneously and it doesn’t take long before you can keep up to many conversations. It requires patience and perseverance but thankfully there is the right dosage of fun intrinsic with the instrument to help through the tough times. You will plateau as with any new skill in life but remembering why you are learning to play the uke will help you keep your eye on the prize. You too could be lost in a barrio of some foreign land and need to play yourself out of a tight corner. Doesn’t that sound fun?

IMG_3112_840pxYoung Jason and his first uke.

Jason’s workshop is sold out, but there are five other great opportunities to learn from Folk Festival musicians at The 10th Annual Folk Boot Camp at the National Music Centre. Register today!

Discover what stringed instruments, like guitars, ukuleles and banjos can teach your students about hearing and sound. Register for While My Guitar Gently Speaks for the 2015/16 school year.

About the Author

Kate Schutz

Kate Schutz is the Education Manager at the National Music Centre. She is both a visual artist and arts educator with over a decade of experience in community and museum education. She is currently completing her Masters of Education with a focus on arts-based learning and loves working with teachers to use the arts to enhance curriculum.

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