Home ukulele Ukulele: A Unifying Force for Thousands of Australians

Ukulele: A Unifying Force for Thousands of Australians

by Madonna

The humble ukulele is breaking down barriers and fostering connections among thousands of Australians, transcending age, background, and musical experience.

For retiree Rosie Micallef, the musicians who accompany her as she strums the ukulele have become the family she longed for in her new home in Queensland.

“I don’t have relatives in Queensland, so they’re my family,” she said. “If you’re feeling down, they’ll pick you up.”

Two years ago, Rosie, a single mother with no prior musical experience, discovered the joy of playing the ukulele.

“My daughter had just joined the navy and gone away. I was sitting at home doing nothing, and a friend suggested joining the group,” she shared.

Rosie is a member of the Townsville-based “The Uker-Lyptus Strummers,” one of over 100 ukulele groups across Australia. Beyond learning tunes from Elvis to Madonna, she found an unexpected sense of community within her “uke family.”

This retired aged care worker is part of a rotating group of 50 strummers who perform weekly, including at aged care homes, emphasizing the importance of giving back to society.

“It’s just to give back to society, we’re passing it forward,” Rosie explained. “Don’t sit out there looking at the walls, pick up a ukulele.”

Harry Newitt, another member, performs at aged care homes, where he observes the profound impact of music on residents, many of whom have dementia.

“They seem to still get a lot of joy out of the music … and so that comes back to us,” he said.

For Harry, it’s the sense of fulfillment that keeps him strumming. He rediscovered his love for music when he stumbled upon a ukulele at a pawn shop after retiring.

“I’ve been retired for about three years now. You lose your workmates, you lose your group, but we’ve got a group here now, and we share hobbies, music. It fills that need,” he remarked.

In 2021, an advocate for ukulele clubs, a South Australian, co-authored an editorial titled “Combating loneliness and isolation and promoting good mental health — one ukulele at a time,” published in the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing. She has long championed the inclusion of ukulele clubs in the toolbox of community health professionals.

“People don’t want to just be clients; they want to be members of the community,” she noted. “It’s about people stepping into understanding that they’re capable of doing things and not taking on a sick role.”

The uke community across the country thrives on “inclusivity and sharing of knowledge,” fostering connections across generations with its accessible, four-stringed instrument.

“It’s easy, it’s achievable … it’s this cute, little, quirky instrument that isn’t expensive, and you can learn to play a song in less than an hour. So it’s highly accessible,” she said. “It opens the door to social connection. Through music, you meet people that you would never have encountered anywhere else in life.”

Truck driver Kent Dungabell can relate to that. He participated in a world record attempt for the largest ukulele ensemble in 2011 and has been hooked ever since.

“I’d never played music, but I like to sing,” he said. “Something about singing releases endorphins and gives you euphoria. The brain doesn’t care if it’s good or bad singing, you get the hit, guaranteed.”

Richard Tonkin, an Adelaide-based ukulele teacher, witnesses the instrument’s power to empower people of all ages.

“People never thought they would be able to do it, and I really think it’s something very meaningful in their lives,” he said. “It’s very hard to not have a sense of humor when you’re playing the ukulele. Having fun is sort of intrinsic to the nature of the instrument.”

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