City of David

I had a brainwave in the shower Christmas Eve morning. It had been building for a while, I think, but I was humming Joni Mitchell’s “River” and remembering how I played it for colleagues a couple of weeks previous on a semester-end Zoom social. I work with the Centre for the Study of Islam in the UK at Cardiff University, and many of my colleagues and our students are Muslim. Easy assumptions about Christmas are therefore suspect, but it’s not a matter of rejection. My friend and co-lecturer Mansur Ali, for example, gives an annual sermon about the nativity and the importance of Jesus in Islam.

Nonetheless, I didn’t think that “O Holy Night” would be the right one to bust out. And puerile commercial Christmas songs like “Jingle Bells” just grind in the annoying dominance of the season with none of the spiritual uplift. Well, “River” is the silver tuna, then. Christmas-adjacent, and pretty besides. One of my students even beckoned her mum to join the Zoom call to hear.

Photo by Katie Munnik

So now we’re all locked down again for Christmas. The governments at Westminster and the Senedd really mishandled the messaging for this season. They devised a dubious pretext for safe family gatherings, which then required a tranche of other disruptions to school and university students so that isolation could happen in time to make these gatherings “safe”. I personally thought this was a bad idea, but the stakes are low for me anyways because my family is all back in Canada; we’ve been used to being just the five of us for the holidays for many years.

I’m not a Grinch, though, and I’m sympathetic to the desire of those whose grannies and aunties and cousins and such are close. I’m also a pragmatist, and I know that many, many British people were going to do it anyway. But when the weight of the bad-ideaness crushed even the bumbling optimism of Boris Johnson, who redrafted people’s plans with less than a week to go, even I felt angry and dismal.

That was the moment the ukulele brainwave should have landed, but it took a few days.

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Ukulele Lockdown: The Numbers

Since we got locked down (locked in, maybe?) in the middle of March, our engagement with the exterior world has radically changed. Out less (not at all if you can help it, or once a day for exercise), not in groups, working from home, or perhaps furloughed. I don’t know about you, but I was online much more – for work, for social interaction, for entertainment, and of course the necessary doomscrolling, where we let the wash of awful envelope us with a relentless swish of the thumb. It’s been a time, and we’re not even out of it yet.

But alongside the well-intentioned physical habits we’ve been encouraged to take up – the daily constitutional or, when that doesn’t manage to happen, running up and down the stairs several times – and the Calvinistic improving ones (in my case, Spanish on Duolingo: going for a 90-day streak tonight!), I picked up an odd one: ukulele videos. It started at Easter weekend, when I decided to share some original songs of mine in an immediate fashion. “Daughters of Etobicoke” was written on Maundy Thursday, “Mercy” on Good Friday, and then “A Passionate Year” which was not written on Easter but name-checks it in the first line (“There’s a lesson we learn every Easter…”)

It was fun, and I fancied I might keep going for a while. I even gave it a hashtag, #UkuleleLockdown, which had been *very* lightly used at that point by the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and someone who was learning the instrument during lockdown. It existed, but not in a major way. I learned that you can post a video directly to Twitter so long as it’s 2:20 or fewer (140 seconds, which parallels the number of characters you were originally allowed in a Tweet, in case you’re baffled at the seemingly arbitrary figure). That was a constraint I could work with, which made recording on the ol’ iPad pretty easy. I kept it pretty low-maintenance, so only one or two takes unless I was really struggling, and just a minimum edit, topping and tailing to make it fit and sometimes fading out at 2:19 if the song couldn’t be shoehorned into the time constraint. Even with the slow upload onto Twitter and Facebook, the whole thing could be accomplished inside half an hour.

My studio, during “This New Spark of Life”. Photo by Katie Munnik

Some people – especially those who would not identify as ukulele lovers – asked why: why this instrument, why this vehicle for sharing? Well, I didn’t want to obsess over a high-quality output, because I’ve put studio-quality recordings together that I have spent some time and effort on. This is meant to be free, quick, and easy. Maybe it’s a pick-me-up for someone (the ukulele is famously cheerful), and maybe some friends and family will make a point of tuning in. The smallness of the instrument and the enterprise gave some unity to the project, and it was something I could do every day.

And every day I did, bar one, up until last Thursday. Continue reading