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Striking a Chord: How the Small Ukulele Became A Big Deal in the Philippines

In time for the 5th Philippine Ukulele Festival, one of its organizers, Laurence Dacanay of Happy Music, talks about the four-stringed guitar’s popularity and what people can expect from their event this year.


Laurence Dacanay of Happy Music, the organizer of the Philippine Ukulele Festival.
I f the recent months have been difficult for the retail group Happy Music, then it’s mostly because of how easy it is to use what they’re actually selling.

I’m talking about ukuleles, the company’s main source of income. Ever since the start of this decade, the four-stringed instrument has been rather popular in the Philippines. The portability afforded by its small size and the fact that it is easy to learn apparently endeared it to aspiring musicians all over the country. And now, as the major local supplier of this miniature guitar, it has fallen upon Happy Music to meet the public’s demands for it and to keep its market vibrant. This meant setting up events for ukulele enthusiasts. And, one event, in particular, has been taking up much of the company’s time and resources.

“The Philippine Ukulele Festival (PUF,)” said Happy Music’s Laurence Dacanay. Initially launched back in 2013, it has become one of the largest gatherings of the instrument’s players in the country. It took a two year break in 2016 and 2017 but since returning last year, it has gotten bigger and more interactive than ever. And this year, its growth continues.

Come March 30 to 31, at the Eton Centris of Quezon City, the festival will be returning for its 5th year. Its main attraction is a series shows featuring about 300 ukulele artists from both the Philippines and abroad.  “There are a lot of performers this year,” Dacanay said. And considering what he knows of the scene, this is something that didn’t surprise him.

At Happy Music’s Panay Avenue store.

W hen I met Dacanay on a weekday, we were at Happy Music’s store at Panay Avenue, about two kilometers away from the setting of this year’s PUF. The store is situated at the end of a dark, narrow staircase but it gleams thanks to the natural lighting bouncing off of the shiny ukuleles hanging on its walls.

It is in this setting where Dacanay gets in tune with the industry he currently belongs to. And after years of examining it, he has come to believe that Happy Music indeed has a sound reason to be “happy.”

“I would say that [the market for ukuleles] is OK,” he said. “Makikita mo na ang ukulele nagkakaroon na ng mark eh kasi, pati yung malalaking stores ngayon, pinapasok na nila yung market. [You will see that the ukulele is making a mark because even the big stores are now trying to get into the market.]” This makes sense to him. After all, if you try your hand at Google Trends, you will see that the Philippines has been showing a notable interest in ukuleles. Data gathered since 2004 implies that around 2013, local attention for the four-stringed guitar started to increase significantly peaking December last year. According to Dacanay, this started mostly because of a Youtuber.

“Jake Shimabukuro,” he said; he is a Hawaiian musician of Japanese descent. Dacanay said that several years ago, videos of Shimabukuro playing popular songs on the ukulele started going viral. And, because of this, people started taking note of the instrument’s many appealing qualities. For starters: its easy learning curve.

“Compared sa ibang instruments, pwede mong sabihin na madali siya [Compared to other instruments, you can say that it’s easy to play,]” he said before asking one of the store’s staff to fetch his ukulele. Sitting beside a wall of these four-stringed guitars, he then began to strum it while explaining its popularity.

Sasabihin ng iba na mas simple siya because four strings. Pero hindi ‘yon ang reason. [People will say that it’s simple because it only has four strings. But that’s not the reason,]” he said. “May mga chords kasi sa ukulele na isang finger lang kailangan mo eh [there are chords in the ukulele that you only need one finger for.]” Like “C,” he said, placing a finger over a string and then strumming. Add another finger and you get an “A.”

Another reason for its popularity, he shared, is the instrument’s size. Unlike other members of the guitar family, the ukulele’s smallness makes it an easy traveling companion. It shares this quality with the recorder, he said. And that’s partly the reason why in countries with strong music programs in school (like Canada,) both instruments are popular amongst parents who want their kids to be musicians. The ukulele however, tends to have an advantage over the recorder.

Sabi ng mga parents, between recorder and ukulele, mas OK na yung ukulele kasi, pag uwi ng anak nila, makakatugtog na talaga [Parents prefer the ukulele over the recorder because when their kids come home, they can already play successfully,]” he said. “Yung recorder, ang hirap ng learning curve eh [The recorder has a difficult learning curve.]”

According to Dacanay, however, these are only two of the most talked-about explanations behind the ukulele’s popularity. There is, he said, another factor: “community.”

For reasons he could not explain, communities are often built by ukulele players. It happens in other countries, he shared and it happens here in the Philippines as well. To explain this, an article by Fender Musical Instruments Corporation said that the ukulele is a highly social instrument. “It’s not intimidating at all,” it said. “[It] can be played by anyone, young or old, musician or non-musician.” And this is a trait not often enjoyed by other members of the guitar family.

Mayroon kaming performers, sila Jenny and Jeff; husband and wife duo sila na classical guitarists din [We have performers, Jenny and Jeff; they’re a husband and wife duo who are classical guitarists as well,]” he said. “Tina-try nila yung ganoon na may community among guitar players. Hindi talaga nila magawa eh. For some reason, unique talaga siya sa ukulele [they tried to build a guitar community but they can’t do it. For some reason, that’s unique to the ukulele.]” And on the 30th to the 31st, the festival will seek to highlight that uniqueness.

Formerly known as Ukulele Philippines, Happy Music is one of the main sources of high quality ukuleles in the country.

I f you attend the PUF for the first time this year, and you bring a ukulele with you, then it is likely that you won’t end the day without meeting someone new; that is, of course, unless you’re too much of an introvert. This, at least, is the theory of Dacanay who has been to with the festival since its inception.

It has always had a friendly environment, he said. Its participants tend to be very welcoming and they’re fond of engaging like minds. This year, the organizers of PUF intend to capitalize on that by giving more opportunities for people, even non performers, to interact with the rest community. There will be workshops (much like the free ones Happy Music has been giving throughout the country.) There will also be bazaars featuring arts and crafts, and there will also be an added feature in some of the performances that will allow audience members to participate.

Kung performer ka and three yung songs mo, ieencourage ka namin na ibigay yung chords mo sa isang kanta [If you’re a performer and you have three songs, we will encourage you to give us the chords to one of your songs,”] he said. The organizers will then project these chords on a screen so that members of the audience can play along.  

It’s a plan that can easily go south but Dacanay seems confident that it will work. He stressed, after all, that the ukulele is one of the easiest instruments to play and this factor is expected to allow their plan to succeed.

Overall, “fun talaga siya [it’s really fun,] he said of the festival. It will open at 10 am on both days and run for about 12 hours each. It will also feature a number of popular ukulele players including BennyBunnyBand, Navy Blue Pants, Alamat ni Ug, Talata ni Tala, and Esremborak among others. It will also bring in ukulele clubs from Metro Manila, Tarlac, Zambales and Cebu–this includes a large group of players from Jose Rizal University.

That being said, however, the festival is not without challenges. Expenses for one have always been a problem for Happy Music. Even though they’ve managed to get sponsors this year, Dacanay said that setting up a festival can still hit the pocket hard. It also doesn’t help that around 300 artists will be performing this year adding more complications to an already difficult endeavor.

The latter, however, is a good problem to have as far as the company is concerned. After all, it means that the scene is alive and well. It also means that the small four-stringed guitar–the source of their livelihood for years– continues to be a big deal in the country.

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