My Ukulele Family: Q&A with Sayali Tank
Earlier this year, Kala was immensely proud to welcome Sayali Tank to our Kala Ambassador family. Sayali is the mind and voice behind the largest YouTube channel in India devoted to the ukulele. Over the course of three years, she has built her own community of ukulele beginners, whom she dubs her 'Uke Family,' all centered around her fascination and passion for better understanding the instrument. Sayali's channel has both signified and spearheaded a rapidly growing interest in the ukulele throughout India. We took the opportunity this summer to ask her some of the things we've been most interested to know about her personal journey as a musician, a teacher, and an ukulele aficionado:
When did you receive your first introduction to music? What made you want to develop that skill further?
In the early 90s radios were a big thing in India and in my home we had a small radio and my dad, being interested in music, used to listen to songs daily over the radio. My parents told me when I was 2 and a half years old, they found me singing a song one day that was broadcasted on the radio the day before and that's how they discovered that I am keen into music. That's what I can recall as my first introduction to music unknowingly. Informally, by singing more and more songs I was developing my interest towards music.
In India, during our school days there was no formal subject for music . When I was in 5th grade, one day our music teacher announced that she will be starting extra classes after school for those who are interested in learning singing. I, being so in love with music at that time, took the decision to join the class without even getting consent from my parents. That's how I started learning music under the guidance of an expert. Eventually, over the years I completed 7 levels of Hindustani (Indian) Classical vocals and in 2018, I attained a degree of "Visharad in Hindustani Classical Vocals" (Visharad is equivalent to Bachelor’s) in addition to my formal education in Engineering. This helped me to develop my vocal skills and understand the music and its technicalities in a better way. However, I just did it as a hobby and never thought of it as a career option. It was the pure interest towards music which made me want to develop my skills further.
Where in your musical journey did the ukulele first come into play?
Sometimes I wish I could have discovered the ukulele earlier in my musical journey, but I was always into vocals and never consciously gave a thought to learning any musical instrument until I saw a few of my friends playing guitar and wished to have one. I did start to learn guitar for a few months in early 2016, but again, never actively mastered it.
I started my YouTube journey in late 2016, making song covers and enjoying singing songs. In late 2018, I was going through the internet to read some articles in music and that's when a picture of some new instrument like a tiny guitar came in front of me. I then started researching what the name of the instrument was and found out it is actually called an ukulele. I was fascinated as soon as I heard its sound. This very moment broke my myth: this is not a tiny guitar, but a different instrument altogether.
I immediately felt an urge to learn to play the ukulele. I started looking for it in the Indian market and found one Makala Ukulele available. I ordered it without a second thought. From that very moment, ukulele has always been with me in my musical journey to accompany my vocals.
What made you decide to start making videos teaching and performing with the ukulele?
As ukulele was not so famous in India when I bought it, there were no classes teaching how to play it. I decided that I will train myself by using the internet, but soon realized that there were very few resources available, especially those related to Indian music.
At the time, I was actively looking for a job as a professor in Engineering colleges but -- now to my luck -- I couldn't get one. During this process, I felt strongly that there might be a lot of people in India like me, wanting to learn ukulele, but unable to learn efficiently as there was no proper guidance easily available.
One day, in late 2018, I realized I was interested in becoming a teacher and also: “why can't I be the one to bridge that gap by teaching people to play ukulele?” At this very moment I put my engineering degree at stake against the will of my parents and took the responsibility on my shoulders to make ukulele tutorial videos which will serve as easy guidance for whoever wants to learn.
The ukulele helps to relieve stress and bring joy to oneself as well as to all beings around them. I do believe music is a way of meditation and nothing can be peaceful than playing an instrument yourself. By looking at the love I started getting in this journey, I soon started performing with the ukulele as well. I am glad that I took this step because I am able to provide some value in people's lives through my work and nothing makes me feel happier than that.
Your channel recently passed 140k subscribers! What has it been like to watch that growth and how would you describe your audience?
Oh my god! It's been so surreal. I still feel like pinching myself sometimes. Haha! It's been really great, though it is not always unicorns and rainbows. To reach this milestone I had to consistently put in efforts for many days and also had a few moments where I had the urge to quit this journey. Content creation has its own ups and downs but, the "believing in yourself and keep going no matter what" attitude helped me a lot to grow in every step of the way.
Ahh, my audience. It would be better to call them my Uke Family. They have been so supportive, sweet and kind towards me and I couldn't be more grateful to have them by my side. A lot of time I get messages on how ukulele is helping them in their life, like to escape from reality, or to just relax. A few people reached out saying that ukulele helped them to get out of depression and go through the tough times in life; such messages empower me to do more and do better for them.
I mean 140,000 is not just a number: there are real people behind the screen writing to me and expressing how my work has been helping them. It really motivates me to keep going, especially when I am going through down phases.
Tell us a bit about your philosophy as an instructor.
My philosophy as an instructor is very simple and basic. I think we can get too focused with correct technique and theory and lose sight of what it's all about...just having fun making music. The uke is an instrument of the people and we should avoid classifying and dividing people on the basis of their perceived knowledge or lack of knowledge. The uke brings happiness and brings people together ..that's it!!!
I would say: play the instrument for yourself. You should enjoy the process of learning and playing without burdening yourself with false expectations. Take things one day at a time. Take it easy and don't compare your journey to anyone else's. Music is meant to be enjoyed and regular practice is important. There is no escape or shortcuts: you have to keep up with the practice.
This is a big question -- what do you think makes the ukulele special for musicians and creators from India?
I think this applies to anyone who plays ukulele. No matter if you are a musician, a creator or not. The most common reason would be that ukulele is affordable as compared to other instruments. The ukulele is portable; you can easily carry it anywhere along with you. Also, it sounds so good.
The learning curve of the ukulele is relatively smaller than any other instruments and that's really a huge thing. It's the friendliest instrument for kids and complete beginners. Ukulele is easy to handle, no matter what age you are. It can be played as a solo Instrument or an ensemble instrument. It is also cross-cultural. With the ukulele, you can sing and play at the same time. Also, it's fun!
What are some of your favorite songs that you have arranged for the ukulele and voice?
I am in the process of learning to make my own arrangements on ukulele, though I have arranged a few songs here and there. I can't name one specific song as my favorite because each song is different in its own way and I get to learn something new through each and every song I work on. Still if I have to name a few, it would be "Can't Help Falling in Love With You" by Elvis Presley, "Shallow" by Lady Gaga, and any retro Bollywood songs by Kishor Kumar, Mohammad Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar as I have grown up listening to them a lot. I always get to learn something new from each song and that helps me to grow my skill set, which is the most important factor for me.
What are some Indian genres and styles that every musician globally should be aware of?
Indian music is so vast. Some of the genres and styles I would really like to mention are Sufi Music, Ghazal, Qawwali, Bhajan, and Bhangra. I feel that people should listen to Classical Indian music and its "Ragas". It's all together a different experience in comparison to western music. Ragas are combinations of notes, similar to a different scales like major, natural minor, harmonic minor, melodic minor etc. and each emit a specific range of emotions.
What reputation would you like to see the ukulele have in India in the next five or ten years?
I really hate it when people call it a tiny guitar even though I initially had the same thought. I feel grateful to see the ukulele getting its own identity in India and I would really love to see it as a mainstream instrument, like guitar, in the next five to ten years. If you look into the history or the journey of ukulele as an instrument, it has really come a long way and I would really love to see the ukulele to gain its own identity as an Instrument, mabe where people won't even think of it as a toy or a tiny guitar. I would really love to see people realizing that the ukulele has a lot more to offer than we think and is such a versatile instrument.
What should we look to see from you and your channel in the near future?
I started my channel by posting videos where people who have no experience in playing any musical instruments can quickly learn to start playing ukulele and also videos where people can learn a specific song or two quickly to play around with. As I feel that now many of them are able to at least play a couple of songs, I want to take my entire audience to the next level by introducing them to some intermediate and advanced level techniques.
I also always make a conscious effort to listen to what my followers are requesting and plan to deliver the same as simply as I can. I feel that as I am progressing, my audience should also progress and learn new things and take as much as they can from my end. Also, a few more exciting things which I can disclose as time comes...