It’s a silly song, but Dave McKeen and his students look serious hunched over their ukuleles.
They’re plunking their way through 1950s standard “Lollipop.” Gathered around McKeen are half a dozen Grade 5 and 7 students, seated on couches in his sunny Dawson Creek living room. McKeen sings the words, then encourages one of the students to pick the melody along with the chords.
The next day in his classroom, McKeen reflects on that sound.
“There aren’t many instruments that sound great en masse,” he said. “[Ukuleles] just sound so wonderful together. They’re not overpowering, they’re warm. The sound, you hear a ukulele, and it just makes you feel good inside.”
The students are among the 50 members of the Ukulele Club of Dawson Creek. Dozens more at Ecolé Frank Ross are in McKeen’s music class, where a small arsenal of ukuleles are stacked in cubbies. A fresh shipment of 15 instruments sat in cardboard boxes by the door Wednesday, part of a new program that will allow kids to take ukes home to practice.
In the past five years, the Peace has gone through a ukulele renaissance, thanks in large part to McKeen. It may seem odd that a town Dawson Creek’s size has a vibrant ukulele community. But for McKeen, 52, it’s not surprising that the versatile instrument caught on.
“We’re in the third global ukulele resurgence,” he said, matter-of-factly during an interview.
That resurgence began around a decade ago, McKeen estimates. His own history with the uke goes back to 2009, when he attended a ukulele seminar in Victoria led by a music teacher in Campbell River. That district had had a ukulele program for nearly 35 years, McKeen said, and the instrument’s appeal was obvious.
“I discovered the instrument for the first time and got really hooked on it,” he said. “It’s such a versatile instrument for teaching musicianship skills to kids and adults.”
Online classes and work with other players got McKeen to where he could teach the instrument (though he said he’s still “pretty green.”) Learning ukulele also taught him its history. The uke had its North American coming-out party in San Francisco at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, he explained. The exhibition was a turning point for North America’s interest in Hawaiian and Polynesian culture, with the portable, pleasant-sounding ukulele as a centrepiece.
The second resurgence came after World War II. That the instrument made the jump to Canada is thanks to John Chalmers Doane, a Nova Scotian who McKeen said is known as the Grandfather of Canadian ukulele. Doane pioneered a ukulele curriculum for schools in that province, which soon spread to other districts. McKeen keeps a copy of Doane’s book in a stack of ukulele music on a set of cubbies containing 28 ukes.
In that sense, McKeen isn’t a pioneer, but rather building on a surprisingly rich Canadian ukulele tradition. But he can claim a good deal of credit for the uke taking root in Dawson Creek the way it has.
“I had no music, never had any, couldn’t read a note,” said Adina Meier, a retiree who learned of the ukulele program after seeing a poster at the doctor’s office. Despite saying she’s likely the “lowest common denominator” in her practice group, she’s stuck around for two years.
“Even though there were people who knew lots [about music] in the class, [McKeen] never stopped teaching to everybody,” she said. “He’s so full of energy, bouncing all over the place. He makes you want to come back every two weeks.”
An Edmonton native who grew up playing piano, McKeen has taught in schools around the Peace Region since 1993. He followed his wife to Tumbler Ridge in the early 1990s, where he took part time teaching jobs while finishing his bachelor’s degree. He was eventually placed at Parkland Elementary, a rural school where he slowly took on more music responsibilities on top of his regular teaching duties. Since 2009, he’s been the full time music teacher at Frank Ross.
After studying a curriculum from James Hill, a Langley ukulele teacher and musician, McKeen saw “the potential for ukulele groups within the community.”
“Right away, it really took off. The instrument sort of sells itself. People really have fun with it.”
This year’s classes, which began in the fall, wrap up later this month. McKeen encouraged people to sign up for next year. For Meier, playing with McKeen has been worth it.
“Ukulele, if you can play a chord, you can play with a group. There are some in there who are amazing, then there are people like me who can only play a few chords,” she said. “You can still sit around a campfire and play.”