The ascendancy of the humble uke

“The uke is the easiest instrument to get started on,” Gerald Ross said. “You can be playing a song in ten minutes. Try that with a violin, or a trumpet.” (photo by Dion Ogust)

The ukulele was once the Rodney Dangerfield of the music world. It seemed a parody of the guitar. It was small. It had plastic strings; sometimes a plastic body. Arthur Godfrey, the very embodiment of “square” in the 1950s, used to offer ukulele lessons on his TV show. Later, there was Tiny Tim.

The ’50 and ’60s were the nadir of the uke’s history. But today, Hawaii’s most famous musical instrument is no longer a four-string punchline. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the Mid-Hudson Valley.

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Gerald Ross has been a guitarist all his life. He managed to ignore the possibilities of the uke until about a dozen years ago. He liked its small size. It didn’t cost much. And he discovered that he could compose very easily on it – so easily that he recorded a pair of songs in his basement studio in a single day. “Quite honestly, I thought I was the only person in the world who was working with a uke,” he said.

But when Ross made a few queries on the internet, he found a ukulele discussion group and within ten minutes, he was inundated with queries from all over the world wanting to know if he would teach or perform or just give tips. The query landed him a gig at an Indiana uke festival, and it has taken him and his uke around the world to scores of performances ever since –places, he says, “that weren’t even on my bucket list.”

It has also taken him every Memorial Day weekend for the past five years to the Ashokan Center in Ulster County’s Olivebridge, where he is musical coordinator of the Center’s annual Uke Fest. The Uke Fest is only one of similar festivals that have sprung up nationally and around the world. Sales of the humble instrument have been surprising marketers for years; from 2010 to 2012, the National Association of Music Merchants reports that sales jumped from $81,000 to more than one million.

Ross sold musical instruments in the late 1970s and ’80s at the venerable Elderly Instruments music shop in Lansing, Michigan. He can hardly remember selling a single uke back then. “But today, they must have 150 models on the wall, and every year, they sell out their entire stock – everything they’ve got – by December.”

A large portion of those ukuleles have been purchased by hipsters, but Ross has a theory that explains another force in the instrument’s resurgence: Baby Boomers. “Many Baby Boomers, when they were teenagers, were in bands. But then they went and got a career and a family, and now 35 years have gone by and they’ve retired or are about to retire, and they look around and they realize, ‘I don’t have 40 years ahead of me; I want music back in my life.’”

Enter the simplest, cheapest and most guitarlike instrument in the world. “The uke is the easiest instrument to get started on,” Ross said. “You can be playing a song in ten minutes. Try that with a violin, or a trumpet.”

After 20 minutes, he said, you can learn three basic chords – C, F and G – “and you say ‘Oh my God, I’m actually playing music – and it sounds good!’” It’s not far from there that a new player can play “any one of 10,000 songs, be it pop or folk or rock ’n’ roll.” Couple that with the fact that you can get a “decent” uke for less than $100, and you have a recipe for a worldwide musical phenomenon.

The instrument has even developed a political edge, thanks to musicians like Eddie Vedder, frontman for Pearl Jam. Vedder picked a uke up in a Hawaiian convenience store in the mid-1990s. In 2011, he released Ukulele Songs; it won a Grammy. In a 2011 interview, he told NPR that he considered the ukulele “an activist instrument,” a community-builder. He said that he hoped his album and the growing popularity of ukes would encourage his fans to “step away from their computers and televisions and make some music of their own, preferably with friends.”

That, as it turns out, is exactly what the uke’s resurgence has wrought. Uke-players search each other out and create social groups that provide camaraderie as much as music. One such group is the Orange County Ukulele Club, whose members meet monthly at the Pine Bush Area Public Library.

For club member and children’s librarian Vicki Ducham, it was love at first strum when she was given her first uke in 2013. She now has six. Ducham is a member of what she calls a “subset” of the uke club, the Aloha Ukulele Strummers, a performance group that visits nursing homes in the area. The residents come in wheelchairs and sometimes beds to hear and join the band. “I’ll bring a couple of ukes with me and just hand them to the residents,” she said. “They love to play.”

The Pine Bush group is far from unique. Just hit “ukulele social groups” on Google and find yourself a place to play, rehearse, perform, jam or just chew the fat. The odds are good that you’ll be able to find one within ten minutes or ten miles of wherever you are, musically or geographically speaking.

The Ashokan Center’s fifth annual Uke Fest for uke players of all ages and skill levels will be held on Memorial Day weekend, May 26 to 29, featuring workshops, concerts, dancing and jam sessions. Instructors will include Gerald Ross, James Hill, Anne Janelle, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, Jim D’Ville and Ben Hassenger. Hill and Janelle will provide a Saturday-night concert that will be free to participants. For more details, go to http://ashokan.org/uke-fest.

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