By Jason Rubin
The ukulele, that diminutive four-stringed marvel that is closely associated with Hawaiian music but also delighted such famous devotees as George Harrison and Paul McCartney (not to mention Don Ho and Tiny Tim), as well as more modern players like Sara Bareilles and former Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, was once considered a novelty instrument. In recent years, however, it has been taken more seriously and been more ubiquitous.
It didn’t shock me, then, when I saw a flyer for a ukulele ensemble giving a show at a local church recently. The name of the event, though, did cause me to take a closer look: Ukuleles for Peace. From Israel, no less. I figured the best way to learn more was to go and see (and hear) for myself.
I took my eight-year-old daughter, Stella, who actually owns a ukulele – sort of a toy one but functional if we could learn how to tune and play it. So she was moderately interested. What transpired not only interested us both, it inspired and captivated us.
Ukuleles for Peace is the brainchild of Paul Moore, an Englishman who bears a close resemblance to Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. Born in 1950 to a mixed heritage of British, Italian, Jewish, and Catholic forebears, Moore was a stockbroker at the London Stock Exchange until he felt the urge to do something more creative, meaningful, and impactful with his life. To make a long story short, he has for many years now made a living as a one-man band in Israel, performing on ukulele and instruments he has made from found items.
As Paul regularly performs to both Arab and Jewish kids in Israel, it occurred to him that music and the simple and thoroughly uncontroversial ukulele could be a way to bridge cultures and differences, and make both a joyful noise and a glimmer of hope for peace in the region. He founded Ukuleles for Peace in 2004.
“The goal of Ukuleles for Peace is to bring Jewish and Arab children together to play with ukuleles, kazoos, and other fun instruments,” says Moore. “I work with them once a week in their own schools, and then bring them together for performances. The hope is that playing together will create further opportunities for communal activities, and that parents and other community members will get involved.”
The children come from two communities located north of Tel Aviv. Tira has a population of 22,000 Sunni Muslims. Hod Hasharon is a Jewish town that evolved from the merging of several smaller agricultural municipalities. A hand-picked group of 12 students – half girls, half boys; half Arab, half Jewish; all between about 14 and 20 years old – is currently in the U.S. raising awareness and funds for the program, and showing what is possible when enemies collaborate peacefully.
“By playing music together, the children get to learn about each other’s culture and build friendships with any stereotypical prejudice,” says Moore. “The hope is that one day these children and their families will be the force driving the wheels of social change in Israel.”
The concert I saw was held at the First Lutheran Church (a neutral site, perhaps?) in Malden, Massachusetts, just north of Boston. When they came out, my daughter whispered to me, “All the girls are so pretty.” “Yes,” I said, “and the cool thing is that we don’t know which ones are Arabs and which ones are Jews.”
The actual musical skill of the students varied, but the best musicians among them were truly gifted. The songs were performed in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The English songs included such unexpected pieces as “Hit the Road Jack”, “The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, “99 Red Balloons”, an Iron Maiden song, and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. The closing number was “Down By the Riverside (Study War No More)”. This was the essence of infotainment – enjoyable music with an important and indelible message.
Fittingly the tour wraps up in Hawaii, home of the ukulele. A CD is available from the project’s website: www.ukulelesforpeace.com.