Taylor Swift, Paul McCartney and Jason Mraz play them.
“Glee” and “Saturday Night Live” featured them in episodes of the popular television shows. They've been observed sneaking into movies.
Pearl Jam's lead singer Eddie Vedder took one on his solo tour, and the late Beatle, George Harrison's memorial service featured Joe Brown's rendition of “I'll See you in My Dreams,” accompanied only by the simple strumming of four strings.
The unassuming ukulele, long associated with the likes of the late Tiny Tim or regarded as a novelty gift, is experiencing a resurgence of interest and robust sales, not to mention a newfound respect. On Friday and Saturday, Folkcraft Instruments in Woodburn will host its annual Midwest Uke Fest, bringing together ukulele fans, performers and instructors for classes, tours, jam sessions and a concert featuring the humble little instrument.
“Limitless!” says Richard Ash, owner of Folkcraft. “Seriously — it's fun, easy, lightweight, (and) inexpensive — especially compared to classical instruments. It isn't hard to get started making music with the ukulele.”
“The Jumping Flea”
Introduced to Honolulu in 1879 by Portuguese immigrants, the ukelele (nicknamed “the jumping flea”) made the leap to the mainland in 1915 — just in time for the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Light, portable and easy to play, the uke experienced two significant episodes of popularity before fading to near obscurity in the 1970's.
But in 1999, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole' re-introduced the uke to a whole new audience.
“He did a medley of 'Over the Rainbow' and 'What a Wonderful World' that inspired a new generation of uke players,” says Ash. “Many popular artists today include ukulele on their albums and in their stage shows.”
In recent years, ukulele virtuosos Jake Shimabukuro of Hawaii and Canadian James Hill have plumbed the depths of the instrument in recordings and concerts that consistently draw legions of fans.
Ukes are hot!
“Ukulele for Dummies” is available in e-book and paperback, and a mobile app, promising that one can learn to play the uke in seven days, can be downloaded from iTunes. Five years ago, Ash saw the trend and began making handcrafted ukuleles at the Woodburn facility under the name Druid Moon.
Folkcraft, which relocated to Woodburn in 2007 from the east coast, has made mountain dulcimers since 1968. The same quality and craftsmanship goes into the ukuleles.
“We build using a variety of woods,” explains Ash. “Traditional ukulele woods are koa and mahogany, but our most popular are cherry and maple. So many instruments nowadays are built overseas ... of plywood. They're often called 'veneer' or 'laminate,' but they're still made of plywood.”
Folkcraft instruments are always handmade in the USA and always are higher-end instruments, he says. Three different sizes of ukulele are available — soprano, concert, and tenor (their most popular).
“Most uke fests are focused on jams, vending and concerts,” explains Ash. “Our is a bit different. Our days are filled with classes. Each of our artist/instructors is hired based on teaching ability. Each attendee takes five two-hour classes over the two-day festival.”
Classes are open only to registered guests, with capacity capped at 50.
“Classes range from beginning ukulele to some pretty esoteric advanced skills,” Ash continues. “Our instructors have a diverse background.”
Each instructor has a video camera/projector set up to enable the students to view the instructors' hands, explains Ash — a huge advantage over the “mirror image” presentation common in classrooms.
Lil Rev, a professional uke player from Milwaukee Wis., is the event headliner. He is joined by the Ukulele Cowboy Society, “a fantastic duo from Columbus, Ohio, billing itself as 'The Alternative-Nouvo-Pastiche-Postmodern Jazz and Swing Cabaret Duo,” adds Ash, “and Bing Futch from Orlando, Fla., ... (who) teaches, performs and lives the life of a traveling musician.”
In addition to 30-minute solo concerts by the instructors and impromptu jam sessions during attendees' downtime, a concert at 6:30 p.m. Saturday is open to the public. Admission is $10 per person.
Keeping the momentum
When the Midwest Uke Fest ends, Ash and Folkcraft offer other opportunities for ukulele fans.
“A lot of local uke players join in the acoustic jams we hold at Folkcraft Instruments,” he says. “On the fourth Saturday of each month, we host the Black Swamp Jam.” In addition, the Fort Wayne ukulele club, the TRU-Ukes, meet the same afternoon.
A well-regarded performer, teacher and clinician with the mountain dulcimer, Ash is enjoying his foray into the world of the ukulele.
“It's a fun instrument to play!” he says with a grin.