I can’t get the whimsical sound of ukuleles out of my head. And I blame it all on Lee Urban.

“A friend of mine in Massachusetts is donating 440 ukuleles to the Portland School District for use in Portland schools,” Urban wrote to me in an email last week. “Some of those ukes will be for use in teachers’ classrooms, others will go to school libraries, and some will go home with kids for use during the summer months.”

You read that right. Just before noon on Tuesday, a rental truck will pull up to Lincoln Middle School in Portland. The back will be chock full of brand-new, still-in-the-box ukuleles – each awaiting a pair of young hands looking to make some music … and then some.

A much-needed shot of good news for kids in Portland schools? As the irrepressible Bette Midler once observed, “If you pick up a ukulele, it will make you unbelievably happy.”

A little background:

Urban, the former planning director for the city of Portland, is the founder of Ukuleles Heal the World, a local nonprofit that exists, as its Facebook page puts it, “to share the power of the ukulele to spread smiles, promote peace and thereby help to heal the world.”

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A slide guitar player, Urban stumbled across the ukulele about eight years ago during an online search for an instrument that could combat the encroaching arthritis in his fingers. The ukulele’s four nylon strings, with plenty of space in between, seemed perfect.

But even as he excitedly went about choosing one on the spot, Urban could hear the voice of his late wife, Nan, a longtime social worker in the Portland school system, whom he lost to ALS in 2009: OK, Mr. Know-It-All, so you think you know what you want to buy? Stop. Don’t do anything. Sit on it for three weeks.

Three weeks to the day later, Urban recalled in an interview on Friday, he was in his classroom at Portland’s Presumpscot Elementary School – he took up teaching after after leaving City Hall – and “in walks little Maria, I think was her name, carrying a ukulele.”

Khalid Mahmed, 11, center, and his classmate John Cubahiro, 9, practice on their brand new ukuleles before a performance at Riverton Elementary School in 2018. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

She’d brought it in to perform in the school’s talent show. Urban asked if he could hold it. Maria said sure.

“And an hour later, I was down at Buckdancers (Choice Music Company) purchasing my first of you don’t want to know how many ukuleles,” Urban said.

Hooked doesn’t begin to describe it. Urban started a local ukulele group. He organized an annual Casco Bay UkeFest. Most notably, he began putting on “ukulele camps” for local kids through LearningWorks’ after-school and summer programs.

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In 2017, Urban also formed the nonprofit Ukuleles Heal the World, raising thousands of dollars in donations to put as many instruments into as many kids’ hands as possible.

Enter Greg Heslin, founder of Uku Global in Andover, Massachusetts. A specialist in supply chains and product development, Heslin founded the company to sell Chinese-made ukuleles at a good price to those who could afford one, and at bargains as low as $35 to those who couldn’t.

“I was his first customer,” Urban said, recalling how he found Heslin during an internet search and they quickly met and sealed a deal over dinner in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. All told, Urban estimates he’s purchased and handed out more than 200 ukuleles over the years.

What attracted Heslin to the ukulele? His two kids.

“My daughter started taking ukulele lessons in school,” he explained in an interview. “And so we bought a few ukuleles for the house, and what we noticed was that getting the kids involved playing ukuleles was beating out (the online video game) Fortnite.”

At its peak, Uku Global boasted four full-time gig workers and had a customer list ranging from programs for kids with learning challenges to older folks grappling with the aftermath of trauma. But then the pandemic hit. And with it, so went Heslin’s long-range plan to grow the company and take on the workers as full-time employees with benefits.

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So, earlier this year, Uku Global reluctantly announced it was shutting down.

“Even though we won’t be around anymore, we know the thousands of ukuleles we shipped out over the years will still be in your houses, classrooms, and stages,” the company said in its farewell on Facebook in January. “Keep playing your ukuleles. Keep showing your friends and families and students how incredible that instrument is. Keep spreading the power of music!”

But one loose thread remained: When it was all said and done, Heslin still had 440 ukuleles kicking around and no one left to buy them.

From left, Ahmed Abdi, Albert Urquia-Sanchez, Khalid Mahmed, John Cubahiro and Enora Bizimana hold up their brand new ukuleles during a camp at Riverton Elementary School in 2018. The camp is run by Lee Urban, founder of the nonprofit Ukuleles Heal the World. He gave all six of his students ukuleles to keep at the end of the program. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

That’s when he thought back to his first customer.

“When the opportunity came to close up shop and donate our inventory, of course the first person we called was Lee,” Heslin said, calling Urban’s passion “an inspiration” to everyone at Uku Global.

Grateful for the offer but panicked at the prospect of cramming 440 ukuleles into his already storage-challenged home in Portland’s West End, Urban quickly reached out to fellow ukulele enthusiast Jayne Sawtelle, music director at Portland High School. Sawtelle in turn alerted Audrey Cabral, the school department’s music coordinator.

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“It’s awesome,” Sawtelle said, noting that while most Portland schools have a few ukuleles on hand, demand for the instruments far outpaces the supply. And while the school libraries also have a handful to loan out, she said Portland High School’s library only has two.

That’s about to change, big time, for the better. In addition to the actual ukuleles, Heslin is donating gig bags, promotional T-shirts, stickers and other marketing bling.

Cabral, the system’s music director, said the windfall will be felt at all levels of the school system – and not just for in-class music instruction. Students truly bitten by the ukulele bug may well end up with an instrument to call their own.

Last year, Cabral recalled, she had one eighth-grade student who “fell in love” with the ukulele, despite having no prior musical experience whatsoever.

“But he could tune the ukulele strings without a tuner, which means he has some sort of musical ear,” Cabral said. “Which is a gift. That’s not even a talent – it’s a gift.”

Urban couldn’t be happier. As he noted in that email last week, “It’s not just about learning to play a ukulele. It’s about self-esteem, achievement, and joy.”

Now more than ever, that’s music to all of our ears.


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