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Interview: Peng Ratchaworapong

Peng Ratchaworapong is the charismatic founder of Thailand's Ukoolele School and the Baan Ukulele Store. His vision: nothing less than world peace through ukulele.

Peng and son KeKoa, Anne Davison and James Hill at Ukoolele School in Bangkok, Thailand (December 2011).

Ukulele Yes!: Ukulele is suddenly very popular in Thailand. What caused this surge in popularity?

Peng Ratchaworapong: Many things have contributed to the popularity of ukulele in Thailand. I think it started about two years ago when people took notice of a video of a kid playing ukulele on Youtube. He was picking his nose while playing his own version of "I'm yours" by Jason Mraz. It was the cutest thing ever! To date, I think the video has, like, 50 million views... no kidding. That's one thing for sure that helped to boost the popularity of ukulele not only in Thailand but all over the world!

It was also thanks in no small part to "IZ" Israel Kamakawiwo`ole with his brilliant ukulele version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." That has been used as a soundtrack on various Hollywood movies. If I'm not mistaken, this song is still number one in the iTunes store in the World genre. People started to wonder what instrument he played to make that sound. They couldn't get that catchy sound from guitars so eventually they found out about ukulele.

Renowned artists like Jack Johnson, Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, and Train have been adopting ukulele into their music. Of course, if you look up on YouTube you will find prominent ukulele players like James Hill, Jake Shimabukuro, Ohta San, Herb Ohta Jr., Aldrine Guerrero, Daniel Ho, and Victoria Vox. Their work has inspired more and more people to play ukulele.

It's all smiles behind the reception desk at Ukoolele School, Bangkok.

Local artists in Thailand such as "La-Ong-Fong band", "Singto Numchoke", "Lula" have been adopting ukulele into their music as well. One contestant from a talent show called "The Star" used ukulele to accompany her singing and she has a huge fan following. There are online communities, web sites, web boards, forums, blogs, and videos about ukulele that help spread the word about ukulele here in Thailand. Ukulele is on newspapers, TVs, radios, and ads everywhere. It's a combination of many things. No one really knows for sure what's responsible for this surge. Before you knew it, ukulele was the hotest thing in Thai market. People want to play or at least try it out. The good thing is you can find many ukulele stores in Bangkok and in other major cities.

UY!: What did you do before you started Baan Ukulele and why did you decide to open a ukulele shop?

I even convinced my wife to take an ukulele class so that we could all strum and sing together. She did. Happy family!

PR: Before moving back to Thailand, I was living in Hawaii and working as a programmer and computer instructor. It's almost illegal not to play the ukulele if you're in Hawaii! I played ukulele for my wife and my son. I usually put my son on my lap and we played a soprano ukulele together. My family loves ukulele. I have the wildest dream that every family should have an ukulele just like my family does. Ukulele brings people together, makes people smile and happy. I even convinced my wife to take an ukulele class so that we could all strum and sing together. She did. Happy family!

I started to write an online blog about ukulele and answered email questions I got from Thai people who were interested in ukulele. I noticed that I got more and more emails everyday. When my best friend, Bird, from high school went to Hawaii for his honeymoon, I gave him an ukulele as a wedding gift and asked if he could help me sell my ukuleles so that I could buy a new one (yes, I had "U.A.S." -- Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome). Bird got hooked on ukulele and later played for his new-born daughter. That's how we started Baan Ukulele. We just do what we love and share what we feel about ukulele.

The official Ukoolele stamp of approval!

"Baan," a Thai word, means "home". So Baan Ukulele is the Home of Ukulele Lovers. We started from an online store and eventually we opened the physical store in March 2010. The store is located at Fortune Mall, Ratchada which is in the heart of Bangkok. Next, we opened Ukoolele (Ukulele + School = Ukoolele), School of Ukulele Lovers, at the Pattio Mall, Pattanakarn to teach students of all ages how to play ukulele. The youngest student is 7 years old and the oldest is in his 60s. We all enjoy playing ukulele! Ukulele is such a happy and joyful instrument. Strum once and you'll know it.

UY!: Have you encountered resistance in trying to promote the ukulele in Thailand? Do people think of it as a toy?

PR: Most people I know are new to ukulele. They don't know what it's called let alone know how to play. It's just a matter of time to educate people that ukulele is a real musical instrument and to show them how to play. Because the size of the ukulele is small compared to other instruments, it can be easily mistaken for a toy. On the other hand, that can be an advantage because people are less afraid to try it out... Doesn't hurt to try, right?

They mostly can play simple chords such as C, Am, F, and G7 in a few minutes and with a little practice they definitely could put these chords all together to make a song. That's how they know it's a serious instrument: it's simple and yet it's sophisticated. You can play any kind music you want.

UY!: In terms of music education and enjoyment, what do you think makes the ukulele unique? What makes it different from other instruments?

PR: Good question! I would like to quote the 10 reasons to choose ukulele from "Ukulele in the Classroom", the method developed by James Hill & J. Chalmers Doane, which we have been using to teach our students at Ukoolele. What makes the ukulele unique is that:

  1. It's inexpensive
  2. It's portable
  3. It has a mellow sound
  4. It's a solo instrument
  5. It's an ensemble instrument
  6. It's an ideal tool for ear training
  7. It's a great way to learn harmony and theory
  8. It can play music from all over the world
  9. You can sing and play at the same time
  10. and of course, it's fun.... VERY FUN!

In pidgin English (I learned from Hawaii), that's "Nuff said!" Enough said. No doubt. No questions about it. Ukulele is perfect!

UY!: The internet is such an important part of the ukulele's resurgence. But there's still no substitute for real jamming, lessons, and so on. What do you do to "bridge the gap" between the virtual ukulele community and the flesh-and-blood ukulele community?

It's one thing when you play ukulele alone in front of your own computer but totally another thing when you actually play in a group and meet real people face-to-face.

PR: We put out many video tutorials on the internet and every so often we have jamming sessions and workshops to gather ukulele players. It's one thing when you play ukulele alone in front of your own computer but totally another thing when you actually play in a group and meet real people face-to-face. There's no substitute. We use the internet just to compliment what we have in the real world, not to replace it. For example, we sponsored a ukulele contest in Bangkok Ukulele Day (BUD) for which all contestants initially submitted their videos on the Internet but for the final round they had to do their live performance in front of the judges and audience.

Last year Baan Ukulele invited Herb Ohta Jr. and James Hill to visit Thailand and perform for the Thai ukulele community. We organized Baan Ukulele concerts and workshops in Chiang Mai and in Bangkok. We also invited KoAloha, the leading ukulele maker from Hawaii to show Thai people how to build ukulele. There were approximately a thousand people attended those events combined. Mostly, people knew about the events from the Internet by emails, Youtube, Facebook, web sites, web boards, etc.

In this modern era, the Internet is part of our daily lives. Eventually, I think the virtual community and the flesh-and-blood community will become closer. But how can we utilize the Internet more effectively? That's homework I'll have to think about!

UY!: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with the ukulele? Is it just about music or is it something bigger than that?

As much as a human body needs food to survive, a human soul needs music to be healed.

PR: Of course it's bigger than that! My wildest dream is for every home to have an ukulele! We're getting there. The ukulele community is expanding all over the world. To me, as much as a human body needs food to survive, a human soul needs music to be healed. Ukulele makes such beautiful music and, most importantly, it's so easy to play! My two-year-old son now can strum ukulele so I have a first hand experience and definite proof that most people must be able to play. You really don't need a whole lot of musical talent to enjoy playing ukulele and to be happy.

We have already started to donate ukulele for children. We go to orphanages and children's hospitals to play music for those who are less fortunate than us. Our goal is to donate 1,000 ukulele in year 2012. We're so grateful to have strong support from the ukulele community.

I believe world peace can be accomplished by ukulele. Am I crazy? Maybe... but without craziness, we can't really change the world.

Peng Ratchaworapong is the charismatic founder of Thailand's Ukoolele School and the Baan Ukulele Store. His vision: nothing less than world peace through ukulele. He lives in Bangkok, Thailand with his wife and son.

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