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Plinking away on the tiny, mighty ukulele

DETAILS Uke It Up @ the Library! Learn, share and play some fun music together at the library's free ukulele circle for adults and teens. Players of all levels are welcome. Please bring your own ukulele and a music stand.
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Innovations Music general manager, Stan Livingstone, holds up a couple of examples of ukuleles by the ukulele display in their store in St. Albert. On left is a Cordoba 32T-CE tenor priced at $750 and on right is a Cordoba UP100 concert for $140.

DETAILS

Uke It Up @ the Library!

Learn, share and play some fun music together at the library's free ukulele circle for adults and teens. Players of all levels are welcome. Please bring your own ukulele and a music stand.

Sunday, May 20 from 2: to 3:30 p.m.

Forsyth Hall on the main floor of the St. Albert Public Library

Visit www.sapl.ca for more information.


There you are at the library on an otherwise placid St. Albert Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, the orchestral strains of ‘Tiptoe through the Tulips’ rises, making you wonder who turned their radio on to the Tiny Tim station.

But wait – that’s no radio station. That’s live music, coming from the main floor where dozens of musicians have assembled to practice playing their beloved instrument: the ukulele. Your bewilderment has suddenly turned to pure, childlike glee and you can’t help the grin that grows on your face. It’s just like ELO frontman Jeff Lynne once said, “There’s not much you can do with a ukulele that doesn’t sound happy.”

Go ahead. Check them out at the library tomorrow at 2 p.m. for their monthly meetup. You will not regret it one itty bitty bit.

It’s just like local musician and music instructor Gary Glewinski describes it.

“I bought my first ukulele on Whyte Avenue and I came out of the store. I walked down the street, playing it. People were just coming up, smiling and dancing.”

The phenomenon on four strings

You may have thought of the ukulele as a novelty piece that arrived on a Pacific breeze much like Hawaiian shirts did in the 1950s: popular and fun if only for a spell. The shirts never went away, however, and neither did the instrument. Given enough time, an old novelty can become a new fad just like that.

While Tiny Tim provided the ukulele with a certain amount of fame (coupled with some jangled nerves from his impressive falsetto and creepy demeanour) back in those early days, the instrument didn’t really ride the zeitgeist wave forever. There were influences such as Don Ho and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (a.k.a. Braddah Iz) whose medley rendition of Somewhere Over The Rainbow/What a Wonderful World 20 years ago is perhaps one of the most goosepimple-makingly good things that anyone could ever hear. Iz also reportedly weighed 340 kg, proving that even thick fingers could master tiny plucking.

There was also the incident where Hawaiian Jake Shimabukuro became famous internationally in 2006 when a Youtube video of him playing an absolutely astonishing version of George Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps was uploaded without his knowledge. The person who made the post under the name ‘cromulantman’ noted, “This guy is a god on a ukulele.”

‘Ukulele weeps’ went viral and has since been viewed nearly 16 million times. Shimabukuro, now considered a virtuoso, played a concert at Sherwood Park’s Festival Place in 2017.

‘Big Al’ Cuming, the retail manager at Innovations Music, said that he noticed the ukulele’s resurging popularity within the last decade though it was less of a “dam bursting, more of a trickle up effect.” It was only in the last two years when its traction really started to show.

“I think what really put things over the edge … was because of the talent shows on TV. Apparently, one of the winners – and they were very good – was playing a ukulele,” he said.

Nowadays, there’s no doubting its place in North American music culture has become solidified. You can even hear it on pop rock radio with musicians like Florence and the Machine and Vance Joy utilizing the jaunty instrument for their upbeat tunes.

At Innovations, the proof of its lasting presence is on the sales shelves, or rather off of them.

“It’s pretty well every day we at least sell one. We sell a lot of ukuleles,” he said, adding that they start at approximately $50 but range all the way up to $1,000 and beyond.

“A lot of what we sell are real instruments, not toys, so the price reflects that.”

The store also offers ukulele instruction to kids aged 6 to 76, he said.

A big impression

If you skooch back in time exactly three years, you would have thought to yourself, “I see ukulele circles in Edmonton and other places. Why not here in St. Albert? This is 2015… we should get with the times.”

By the time it was September, a group had started at the St. Albert Public Library. It blossomed due to strong interest from the public and it has not abated since. Heather Dolman organized the group back when she was the institution’s public services manager. After the Gazette published a feature on local ukulele circles in April of that year, a swell of demand rose to her attention.

“I thought, ‘There’s a gap for us. We should be doing this. It sounds like too much fun.’ I tell you there’s a big market for this, a big following. People sure enjoy it. You can’t leave the room without a smile on your face.”

The program continues to run once a month and always on a Sunday. Its first jam session was bursting with 45 players and it regularly sees at least 30 show up month after month.

“It was amazing to us, actually. There was a big response. That first one there was almost too many there in the room,” Dolman said.

The group attracts mostly older, mature players though there are some youths and young adults rounding them out.

Last month, there were 40 ukulele-ists in the circle and nobody complains about the noise. Sometimes, they play in the foyer of St. Albert Place and they often gather a small crowd of impromptu concertgoers.

“You’d think it would sound like just a mess but people say we sound really good. Apparently, it sounds good enough that the staff wants us to leave the doors open. They want to hear.”

“Better than 40 recorders in my humble opinion,” is how Glewinski puts it. “Having taught elementary school, 40 recorders is pretty bad but 40 ukuleles is a nice sound. It all contributes towards this big sound where you don’t really hear individual players so much. You hear the sound of them all playing together.”

“It’s just a fun get-together,” Dolman continued.

She said that she couldn’t just sit on the sidelines; she had to get into the groove too. She took piano in her youth but this is her first adult instrument, something she just had to see what all the fuss was about. Now, she’s one of the uke-chestra and has taken up lessons on the side.

“It’s not too hard to pick up. My kids play violin and cello, things like that. They laugh at me a little bit with this. It’s not as refined as their instruments but it’s a fun instrument.”

The group is led by local performing duo Maureen Rooney and Paul Punyi and it’s for practice only, not lessons. Some people sing while they play too.

Michelle Steinhusen, the library's adult programming librarian, marvels at the continuing legacy of the ukulele circle. Think about it: there’s no guitar group or violin circle at the library.

“I did get one for Christmas a couple years ago. I started to learn how to play and now I just learned how to re-tune it because my youngest keeps taking it and playing on it. I’m really good at re-tuning it.”

Snicker if you like, the ukulele is here to stay, she announced, and for a lot of excellent reasons.

“It’s very portable. It’s super affordable but it can be very expensive if you get something fancy. I think in a way it’s relatively easy to learn it compared to other instruments.”

All that, plus the ukulele circle is the perfect place to practice and the delicate, perky nature of the tunes is irresistible. It’s like Shimabukuro once said, “If everyone played the ukulele, the world would be a better place.”


Scott Hayes

About the Author: Scott Hayes

Scott Hayes joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2008. Scott writes about the arts, entertainment, movies, culture, community groups, and charities. He also writes general news, features, columns, and profiles on people.
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