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What musical instrument would you bring to another planet?
If you play the organ, I am sorry but your space agency may have a good laugh when you pack it. Volume is extremely limited and every kilogram pulled off Earth’s gravity may cost more than the organ itself. Plus, no offense, but if you’re planning to practice hours a day in tight quarters, you may not become the most popular shipmate.
That’s why the dome is often filled with the sound of much smaller instruments: Christiane’s harmonica and my ukulele.
If you don’t know what a ukulele is (I am mostly thinking of my French readers here), no worries. If you had asked me about it before the mission, I would probably have answered something along the lines of “Oh, yeah, isn’t it that tiny guitar played by the huge guy singing about someplace over a rainbow?” And that’s if you had found me in a good shape.
To make it short, a ukulele looks like a tiny guitar with four strings. It was developed in Hawaii in the 19th century, inspired by machetes brought by Portuguese migrants. What do you mean, it makes no sense? Oh, I see. Machetes are small guitar-like instruments. Don’t try putting strings on the sharp kind.
I was not really planning to play the ukulele. To be honest, my musical skills were about as developed as my ballet dancing skills (hint: I can stumble over my own feet when walking in a straight line). But Carmel, our Commander, told me that she was planning to buy one and practice in the dome. I was curious about it and considered trying.
Then Andrzej told me he would bring two guitars, one for him and one for teaching Tristan and I, and I forgot about the ukulele. Until the day before the mission. We were driving and running around in Hilo to get the last things we needed for the mission: miles of toilet paper, handfuls of razor blades, liters of toothpaste, and so on. At some point, I decided to look for Carmel who had disappeared in a street. I knew she intended to buy a ukulele, so I stopped in the first shop selling some. No Carmel around, but I started looking at the instruments. For some reason, I was intrigued. Why did I chose the guitar, already? Amused, I thought that one of the big advantages of a ukulele compared to a guitar is that if I pulled it out in France, nobody would have expectations. Perfect for someone gifted with my abilities.
Tristan entered the shop. I convinced him to buy a ukulele together, sharing the costs and the instrument (which he has not touched so far). I picked the cheapest one, and plucked the strings. I didn’t really like the sound – even I could hear that something was wrong. I reached for another one, slightly more expensive, a black one with white turtles. The sound was much more pleasant. I smiled and we took it.
For more than a month, it took the dust. One day I finally learned a few chords, then put it back on the shelf for a couple of weeks. Slowly, my practice time kept increasing. I started using it once a week, then every few days, then every day. Now, most of the time left by research, mission duties and exercise is spent strumming and picking strings. You know what? I love that instrument.
I even started singing to accompany my playing, after about 20 years without the slightest vocalize (OK, there was this one time in a bar… but let’s not dwell on that). While there is much room left for progress, I sound less and less like a wounded gorilla.
From time to time, Christiane joins me with her harmonica, which she started playing here. Ukulele and harmonica go surprisingly well together.
Other instruments are sometimes heard. Andrzej occasionally takes out one of his guitars, and plays what he remembers from the time he was part of a metal band. It is always the same song or two, but it is rare enough that we don’t get tired of it. I also learned that the buzzing sound in Shey’s room does not come from furious bees but from a small didgeridoo.
I realized something that may be obvious to anyone who practices an instrument: when stress shows up or morale goes down, playing a few notes can be all you need to bring back your peace of mind. While that can come in handy in normal conditions, it is invaluable in an isolated and confined environment.
In a few decades, maybe the ukulele will be an important element of an emerging Martian culture?