Uke on in Yukon

Liam Oster is only eight years old and he has written a song. He wrote it when he found out James Hill was coming to his music class at Holy Family Elementary School to teach a ukulele workshop.

Liam Oster is only eight years old and he has written a song.

He wrote it when he found out James Hill was coming to his music class at Holy Family Elementary School to teach a ukulele workshop.

After the formal lesson ended and the cake – shaped like a ukulele complete with sour key tuning pegs and licorice fret lines – was cut, Oster tapped Hill on the leg and asked him if he could play him a song.

Bending over to hear him, Hill listened to Oster’s song.

Then he started to play it along with him.

Oster’s mom, Cindy Braga, watched from the back of the classroom with pride.

“This is pretty exciting,” she said. “He loves the ukulele and it’s spring-boarding into guitar.”

After his small fingers finished the last note, Oster looked up at Hill with huge eyes and an unmistakable, yet modest grin.

Then, quickly turning around, he ran to his mother to tell her what he’d done.

“That was really cool,” said Oster.

“I just found that tune and really got into it.”

Hill was the same age as Oster when he picked up his first ukulele.

Now, people like CBC personality and author Stuart McLean call him the Wayne Gretzky of the miniature guitar.

“Well, I’ve been called worse,” said Hill, laughing.

But when Hill plays, the instrument looks anything but little. Even when hanging off his tall, lanky frame.

Pulling at the thin strings, Hill can make a sound familiar to the bluesy groans of a steel guitar.

The next moment, he plucks at them producing hopping jigs that normally only banjos or fiddles can accomplish.

Moments after that, his left hand’s fingers work the fret board with precision and speed akin to Eric Clapton, and an attitude comparable to Slash.

“I was shocked to hear people didn’t think the ukulele was cool,” he said, discussing the Hawaiian stereotypes and patronizing stigmas assigned to the instrument.

But it is true the instrument is young, he said, noting its brief 120-year history next to instruments like it’s uncle the violin and it’s older brother the guitar.

“It’s the ‘new kid on the block’ and it is ‘looking up’ to the other instruments and is trying to find its own way,” said Hill, noting a lot of his work in the last 10 years has focused on discovering what the ukulele is. “What is its native voice?”

That discovery is close, said Hill, mentioning the rhythmic aspect of the ukulele’s strum is really unique and that the more popular the instrument becomes – by being showcased in commercials, for example – the more recognizable the sound is.

While Hill knows almost everything there is to know about the ukulele, two main points stick out more than anything: it’s fun, and it’s great in the classroom.

Hill may be in Whitehorse to play, but “the school thing is a big deal,” he says.

His trip to the music class at Holy Family comes after he already visited young ukulele players in Haines Junction.

There is a lot of interest in the ukulele, as a classroom subject, in the Yukon, said Hill, who co-authored the books they teach from.

He has also started a teacher-certification program for elementary school teachers.

But he doesn’t consider himself a revolutionary in this regard, rather he is just trying to continue and expand a trend that is almost as old as the instrument itself, he said.

“The Canadian ukulele program has been the envy of school districts all over the world – including Hawaii,” said Hill. “Canada has been on the cutting edge of this ukulele business for a long time.”

It is the fun, versatility and quick results the ukulele offers – not to mention its size- that makes kids so susceptible to its charms.

“A lot of music teachers are worried that there’s not enough time spent on music,” said Holy Family’s ukulele teacher Caroline Knickle.

This is the second year for Knickle’s extracurricular ukulele program at Holy Family. The school bought 25 ukuleles and the class has doubled to 19 Grade 3 and 4 students.

“Music is important,” she said listing the other subjects it spreads across including math and literacy. “It all relates.”

As well, it teaches the students discipline and how to have a passion for something.

Every Wednesday, all 19 students stay after school, rarely missing a lesson, she says.

“They love it,” she said, her silver, ukulele-shaped earrings dangling. “And I love it. I have a passion for music.”

Hill’s passion is also unmistakable.

He is currently working on his fifth album – the second featuring his vocals, rather than being just instrumental.

“My journey is continuing,” he said. “I am becoming more interested in songwriting and poetry.”

His fifth album ventures into a largely unknown realm for his instrument as well, said Hill, mentioning many of the songs would not be considered “happy,” like most commonly attributed to the ukulele.

“The ukulele has a bad reputation as an instrument that can only play happy music,” he said. “I think it’s got so much more to it than that. I think that really limits it and is a very two-dimensional portrait of an instrument.”

He remembers a trip to Italy’s first ukulele festival.

“The Italians, bless their hearts, they weren’t interested in happy music at all,” he said, noting their infatuation with the friction between the “approachable,” light sound with tragic, heartfelt songs.

It is something he notes in teaching children, as well.

“We pretend it’s about the kids, but it’s often about the teacher and, typically, teachers will feel most comfortable teaching happy songs,” said Hill. “But they’re not as simple as we take them to be. They love to get in there and they love to sing those songs with great gusto because there’s something in there that resonates with them and honours their wholeness as human beings. The subtext is: they’re ‘not ready’ for sad songs. But I like to go there with kids, and I think they appreciate it too.”

Still, it is that approachable nature of the ukulele that keeps Hill strumming it.

“The ukulele connected me with people. I’ve made a lot of friends through the ukulele and I continue to. Even a sort-of reclusive guy like me needs friends,” he said. “We’re living in a world today where there’s so many things that keep us apart – and I would put war and iPods in the same category. These are things that keep us apart.

“And the ukulele is one shinning example of a thing that brings us together. It always has and I think it always will.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

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