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irregular times logoThe Smallest Voice Can Be a Mighty Force: Ukuleles for Sanity

When people streamed into Manhattan to protest against the Bush presidency on the eve of the Republican National Convention, August 29, 2004, very few people simply showed up and started walking. Instead, the march itself began with a series of "feeder marches" that combined into the larger protest. Small groups organized by common identity or common complaint collected themselves.

One such group, Ukuleles For Sanity, met to the South and West of Union Square outside a coffee shop in the still-quiet early morning. That's where I approached Bill Robinson, a spokesman for the group, and asked him to explain what a ukulele protest was all about...

Why Ukuleles for Sanity?

What we are is a group of ukulele musicians and enthusiasts united behind the message that the smallest voice can be a mighty force in our drive to reclaim our democracy from the policies of George W. Bush. We think that the ukulele is the most appropriate symbol for these times. In terms of the smallness, the vulnerability, the willingness to keep a message afloat.

Just strategically, it's impossible to see people protesting with ukuleles and feel threatened and angry. In fact, yesterday I went to a United for Peace and Justice role-playing session, and we were supposed to learn how to deal with people confronting you and all that kind of crap, and all I had to do when this guy got in my face was smile and hold up my instrument. And the guy doubled over laughing. He saw it was stupid to attack a guy with a ukulele. I try to use the ukulele as a recruitment opportunity for anybody who might be intimidated about what might go down at a protest. I say, "look, nobody's going to hit a guy with a ukulele."

How do ukulele players who are against Bush find each other in the first place?

It's a growing community. It started with a small number of us who are involved in the Uke scene. I'm a writer-filmmaker who's making a film on rock ukulele players. I'm friends with a guy who is on the board of the Ukulele Hall of Fame. Tom is a well-known performer, and Tom came up with this idea: what if we put on an anti-Bush ukulele concert during the Republican Convention? He e-mailed Dave, Dave thought it sounded like a good idea, Dave e-mailed me, and everyone e-mailed everyone else who was a ukulele musician. A core group of us formed and started banging ideas around. Suddenly the idea came to participate in a march. We gathered for a concert at The Fez Under Time Cafe on Friday to a packed house. We were able raise over a thousand dollars! It was -- yeah, I'm telling you!

So it was a ukulele network first, and the idea spread through those lines.

It was a weird thing. It's hard for people to believe, but even on ukulele bulletin boards they routinely get into rabid political fights. It's quickly become apparent who the Republican ukulele players are and who is not a Republican ukulele player. A pro-Bush ukulele player is somewhat rare.

Is there a pro-Bush ukulele group?

I don't think so. I haven't come across them, and I'm not surprised. Largely, it's all about whether you're into ukuleles for all those wild-ass countercultural feelings that came out of the 1920s, or whether you're into the kind of "family-oriented" 1950s Arthur Godfrey mode. You know, that tends to advertise itself.

Do you think that ukulele playing tends to be associated with a left perspective?

Some people don't like the idea of politicizing it. But someone else put it to me this way: nothing says "liberal" like a ukulele.

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