Ukulele Christmas spirit

It was the end of a busy Tuesday when I finally arrived at the jam session. Being late for the gig, I was unsurprised to see the audience had already taken seats and that the rest of the band had already set up for the Christmas celebration. It felt like all the residents of the assisted living facility were in the common room at Mountain View Apartments, and they were all there to listen to a local ukulele group.

Over the past several years, this little instrument has found a place in the subconscious of the American music scene, regaining respect after the belittling decades of Tiptoe Through the Tulips being the defining song for the four-stringed folk instrument. The ukulele is a simple tool that comes in many sizes, shapes and styles, and people should caution themselves from dismissing it as a mere toy.

And the truth be told, the instrument has wiggled its way into my life. I’ve always enjoyed music, playing a variety of instruments, from piano to guitar to dulcimer, with an amateurish competence, but it was the ukulele that seems to have cemented my love of music by and for regular people.

Over a dozen other ukulele aficionados joined me on the stage at Mountain View, and none of us had been playing the instrument for more than three years.

The group, which we call The River Ukes, gathers together twice a week at the Fort Kent Senior Center, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and we all share a common characteristic – we just want to play music.

So that’s what we do.  

Along with locally famous musicians, Roger Damboise and Charles Stewart, we belted out several classic Christmas carols like Silent Night, White Christmas, and such, along with other tunes we’ve been practicing these past few years.

The folks listening, residents and their families that were visiting for the celebration, tapped their toes and seemed to enjoy the show.

Afterwards, one of the residents, a tall black-haired woman who sat at the front and listened intently through the entire concert, carefully distributed Christmas cards to the members of The River Ukes.  She slowly moved around the room and wordlessly, almost surreptitiously, placed a beautiful card in the hands of each band member.

When she came to me, the quiet grace moved me. It was at that moment, realizing she wanted to let us know how much she appreciated our joining in their special community’s celebration, that the Christmas spirit manifested in my heart.

Finding that holiday emotion, that ability to relax and enjoy friends and family, neighbors and strangers, is a skill or experience that often passes by me.  I’ll go through a Christmas season having dutifully purchased gifts, watched classic Christmas shows and experienced the Christmas morning hoopla of opening gifts, and that inner sense of peace and goodwill will just miss the mark in my heart.  I’m not a Scrooge or anything like that, but the universal essence of the holiday season that transcends religious differences, reconnects us with the generous portion of our hearts and minds, can wander through my home and leave me untouched.

But not this year.

This year, like a gathering of musicians who share little more than a love of music, the different manifestations of the holiday spirit came in different forms. But when the quiet woman at Mountain View Apartments placed that card in my hands, I realized we must allow ourselves to find the common chord that binds us together and helps us as a community to lift up our hearts in song.

Andrew Birden is the general manager for Northeast Publishing, a division of the Bangor Daily News. People can reach Andrew at abirden@bangordailynews.com

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