August 21, 2011
The Resurgence of the Ukulele
This column is about ukuleles. They’re hot. In San Francisco. In New York City (you can read that as Brooklyn). In Europe, Asia, Iceland and Hudson they are infiltrating musical venues like PM Wine Bar on lower Warren Street where the is a regular karaoke night featuring an attenaed cricket with a sparkling black ukulele. Martha Redivivus (Marte Rosbach) of Thingumajig*saw, a splatterfolk band from Norway who have performed in Hudson three times, once single handledly diffused irate emotions at a Hudson performance by playing a uke and singing a lovely lullaby to surviving late night audience members in the wee morning hours at the Musica Loft.
Not all observations of the ukulele are positive. Gabriel Sommerova is a young Czech woman who recently passed through Columbia County on a cross county biking expedition. Gabriel has a bit of trouble taking the instrument seriously.
“ It’s like sort of a funny thing, it has this funny sound – it’s more like a toy I think. My personal experience was two days and then I lost it when I was hitch hiking and left it in a parking lot and the ride turned out to be fundamentalist Christians trying to convert us. But in those two days I learned three chords and the Czech song about three mosquitoes who wanted to get married but they didn’t have any wine but it has a happy ending because a bird brought them some wine.”
I want to hear that song.
National Public Radio preamble for a review of Eddie Vedder’s ukulele album smugly states
“For his second full-length solo album, Pearl Jam’s singer has taken up one of the most useful creative tools available: limitation.”
Wait a second, that’s disrespectful. Why is the suddenly popular ukulele held (by some musicians and reviewers) in such low esteem? Because it’s fun. Because it’s easy to play. Because they are mostly inexpensive. Trevor Caldwell is a tad skeptical about this sudden popularity as well, though he has often made rent and food money with his ukulele in Berlin, Germany: “They’ve finally gotten as hot in Europe as they seem to have been in the states for awhile; they are literally everywhere now; annoyingly everywhere, almost.”
How did this sudden popularity happen?
Much credit should be given to the the British. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, established in 1985 for a bit of fun. English composer and multi-instrumentalist Simon Jeffes formed the Penguin Cafe Orchestra in 1988 an ensemble which performed many compositions featuring ukulele. George Harrison was, in his post Beatle incarnation, an avid ukulele fan and wrote a moving appreciation for the instrument for an edition of 60’s tunes for ukulele and there is an endearing 1994 video of George, Paul and Ringo playing and singing “Ain’t She Sweet” .
Then came Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, an obese Hawaiian performer who sang a lovely and moving version of “Over the Rainbow” which ended up being one of the first viral videos on the then fledgling youtube site.
Years before any of these events Hudsons’ own arts maven Ellen Thurston would enthusiastically strum and sing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” on her personal ukulele. Rich Hallenbeck, Mr. Rock and Roll of Columbia County for the past twenty five years is an avid ukulelist and a ukulele teacher. Katrina Groboski, adoption supervisor at the Columbia-Greene Humane Society (and one of Rich Hallenbeck’s ukulele students) enthusiastically declares “Yay! I’m a uke person!”
Francesca Olsen recent Register Star reporter fronts “My Rifle” a ukulele and guitar band that plays songs about space, vegetables, french perverts, killing animals and more.
Evan Levine, noted man about town, is an enthusiastic ukulelist. Innocent pedestrians can often hear the occasional strains of frantic uke frailing as he wanders up and down Warren between North Third and Fifth Streets.
Ukes have been predominant at the Spotty Dog in recent months featured excellent bands like in bands like Girls in Trouble, Arborea and performance artist Ryder Cooley who composed much of her current show “Xmalia” on her unique 6 string tenor uke.
Sweet Soubrette, a band featured at the Hudson.Water.Music. concerts series last Wednesday, is a modern combo featuring marimba, violin and the ukulele drive songs of Ellia Bisker.
Elaine Khosrova a guitar teacher from Chatham says: “Like puppies of the string world, ukeleles are just so damn cute. You can’t help but feel kinda sweet when you’re playing one.“
Musician and diva Elana Belle Carroll adds: “Ukuleles are convenient, attractive, and sound pretty good more often than not. Why not own a ukulele?”
Jacqueline Rogers, Spencertown artist and jazz guitarist: Funny…I am taking my uke on vacation next week! How nice to be able to carry it a ferry! I will bond big time. I wonder….is gypsy jazz good on a baritone uke?”
“A small bundle of awesome. It is the perfect instrument, easy to play easy to travel with. I mean, is there any more I can say? Nope. AWESOME.” Ashley Price, 2010 Hudson High graduate and an avid guitarist and ukulele player.
I asked Elvar Kál Sævarsson and Ragnhildur (Heida) Eiriksdottir from the Icelandic band Hellvar (who will be performing a the Hudson.Water.Music. Concert series this week) on the Icelandic view of ukulele, where Eliza Newman and Hafdis Huld, among others had hit the charts with ukulele inspired music.
Elvar says - “The ukulele trend in Iceland is in overkill mode. But with a decent amount of overdrive and fuzz, tuned way down, it sounds great. Also the neck needs some stretching.”
Heida, in a cryptic mood simply stated - “I need to play some ukulele right now so my cold will go away. that and tea with honey combined…”
See you again in a couple of weeks