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Ukulele gangsters will shake up unhappy public transit commutes

"Some pursue happiness, others create it." It was this very quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that inspired entrepreneur and musician Adil Dhalla to begin thinking about ways he could help make Toronto happier. An east-ender working in the west end, he found himself no longer complacent with the unhappiness commuting brings. He grew tired of negative associations with transit in the city. 
"If you ask someone what the most miserable part of their day is, they'll tell you it's when they take the subway, it's when they have to commute. These are places where we don’t have an opportunity to connect," Dhalla tells me over coffee at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI).
It is here where he applied for and won the first CSI Awesome grant to fund what he's called Project Ukulele Gangsterism. His plan to create a ukulele orchestra comprised of like-minded and socially innovative thinkers is already underway. More than 20 people from the CSI community have signed up to disrupt morning commutes with a performance of the original track "Have An Awesome Day." It's an idea that breaks some rules, or as Dhalla puts it, "challenges conventions," in an effort to help improve transit in an alternative citizen-driven way. 
A chapter of the Awesome Foundation, the CSI Awesome grant concists of a board of trustees that each pitch in $100 a month to grant a project creator $1000 to help make an awesome idea come to life. Toronto has had an Awesome Foundation for a while, but this is the first time a non-city specific chapter has been created. Dhalla will use the money to provide participants with ukuleles to learn the songs and document the experience through film. The entire thing will be made into a music video. Inspired by the piano installations that took place across Toronto last summer, Dhalla hopes the ukuleles will further encourage community by continuing the legacy of leaving instruments in public spaces. 
"It's a great experiment that will change some personal worlds, that will change how people in Toronto think about their commute and each other, and will send that little ripple of change through the city," says Heather Laird, the "Dean of Awesome" and one of the trustees who voted for Dhalla's project.  She says they received all kinds of submissions, from the scientific to the artistic, but Dhalla's idea struck a chord for its community building potential. 
The project was in part influenced by Dhalla's experiences in New York. A previous resident and frequent visitor, he fondly recalls the common experience of having a commute interrupted by buskers, reminiscing over one time when two guys came on the subway playing "Guantanamera" with a little guitar and a big sombrero. In Toronto musicians are required to audition annually at the CNE grounds to obtain a license from the Municipal Licensing and Standards. This is similar to New York, but here in Toronto the permits limit musicians to specific areas. 
"What makes New York incredible is they believe serendipity is too important to be left to chance. They have rules, but they also have opportunities for chaos and creativity," Dhalla says. "[Project Ukulele Gangsterism] is for the creators, the nonconformists, for the collaborators, for people who fundamentally believe that we have some control over serendipity and energy. It's this idea that we're all connected."
The ukulele itself is in part responsible for at least some of Dhalla's enthusiasm, he says. He began playing a couple years ago when he learned about the Corktown Ukulele Jam, a weekly meet-up that takes place at the back of the Dominion, a bar located at Queen and Sumach. Stephen McNie and David Newland, two members of the 80's acoustic cover band the McFlies, founded the Jam in December 2008. At their first meet-up in January 2009, more than 40 people attended. The community has since grown to include more than 1,500 members. 
Ukulele's soaring popularity in Toronto isn't new, McNie says. In fact, the movement is a representation of what he calls the "third wave of ukulele popularity," something he credits to social networking and video.  
"This third wave came about because of the Internet," he says, naming popular websites such as BoingBoing! and YouTube as catalysts. "There's no sign that this is ending. In fact, what you're seeing more and more of is kids in parks, sitting on the steps, enjoying making music by ukulele, putting life on pause for a moment and enjoying a song. What could top that?"
Part of the reason for this is also that the ukulele is affordable and accessible. Basic models retail for $30. The simple strings and sound lends itself to happiness. "The ukulele projects a friendly demeanour. It's hard to sound harsh. It's easy and it brings joy," Dhalla says. 
The simplicity and sense of community the ukulele brings has caused the Corktown Ukulele Jam to act as a "microcosm of Toronto," McNie says. The weekly meet-ups are incredibly diverse. Participants range from 18 years of age to 85 and come from all cultures and walks of life, including the head of surgery for a major Toronto hospital. "It’s a perfect representation of what Toronto is all about. The theme that binds us together is the common desire to enjoy the making of music and engaging in each other. That’s a powerful concept that breaks down all the usual barriers that can come with people. That’s very much what Toronto is about."
Building on this, Project Ukulele Gangsterism will begin rehearsing "Have An Awesome Day" next week. They plan to disrupt transit with happy-go-lucky songs and sing-alongs sometime in April, before releasing the music video sometime in May. 
"This idea really spawned from my feeling that life is fundamentally better when you find ways to connect beautiful moments with individuals, including strangers," Dhalla says. "We are a city full of strangers. It's so ironic because the allure of the city so often is this idea of bringing everybody together."
More than 450 million passengers ride the TTC each year, with an average of 1.5 million each workday. While the city explores ways to improve transit, Dhalla sees it as an opportunity to take cues from his New York past and combine it with his passions for music and community by using an instrument and a channel that has become truly Torontonian.  
"There's this idea of trying to change the discourse around the commute in a way that no one expects," he says. "I'm just interested in a different way of trying to make transit better."

Sheena Lyonnais is Yonge Street's managing editor. You can follow her on Twitter @SheenaLyonnais.
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