Maia ran her fingers over the instrument’s carved wood body and plucked the strings. It rang out with a sound not unlike laughter or a waterfall. The owner of the shop took the little lute from her and his fingers started to fly. “So you like the Tahitian Ukulele,” he said as he played one of the songs that I’ve come to associate with French Polynesia.
Finding an instrument is not unlike finding a husband. Or so I’ve been told. You can spend your entire life moving from flute, to piano, to guitar yet never find the one you’re meant to play. And as a boat schooling kid Maia has a few extra challenges when it comes to making music—she needs find a mobile instrument that’s small enough to fit on the boat, that’s tough enough to withstand the conditions and that’s easy enough to learn without constant instruction.
It also needs to have the right cool factor.
But the ukulele, with its image problem (it sort of brings to mind oversized men in flowered shirts and silly hats strumming on toys—sort of like a tropical Shriner’s convention with music rather than motorcycles), never even entered my mind as an option. Yet here we were—learning how this cool little electric guitar-shaped sibling to the traditional ukukele is made (by hand of local wood) and played (very fast).
As John played (we were in the shop long enough to exchange names and life histories) and showed us the variations between instruments, Maia’s mood shifted through giddy excitement to something approaching awe.
This was our third, or maybe our forth, stop on our hunt for a ukulele. The ubiquitous instrument, which originated in the Marqueses and only vaguely resembles its Hawaiian cousin, is one of the top souvenirs in Tahiti (up there with pearls, tikis, tapa and pareos). And like most souvenirs it comes in a few different levels of quality: there are the kind you buy on the street then take home to hang on the wall and the kind you buy from a master craftsman that you play for a lifetime.
I was sort of hoping for something in between the two options. I wanted an instrument Maia could learn to play and take to shore for jam sessions with fellow cruisers (many of whom use cruising as a time to finally learn to play an instrument). But I wanted something affordable.
As we wandered and strummed we kept returning to Pedron music. The floor model uke was available and John—who has not only taught all over the world, but has also worked with a bunch of cruising kids (several who still email him) had space in his lesson schedule.
Maia was ready to commit. And as she learned her first four chords and played through her first song I saw a small smile peak out from behind her concentration. And on the bus on the way home she said she couldn’t wait for tomorrow, and her next lesson.