Just strum away

Jack Hunter

Guitar players can leave their egos at home this weekend and step aside for the underdog of musical instruments at the third annual Uketoberfest.

With a weekend dedicated entirely to the ukulele, performances will range from traditional to contemporary.

The uke-intensive festival began as a small-scale project.

“When Brook (Adams) and I started, our main interest was to have a cool party with all of our ukulele friends,” said co-organizer Keith Blackwell, who discovered the ukulele seven years ago at a friend’s house, strummed it once and fell in love.

As people were leaving the first Uketoberfest, the organizers made a wish list of performers they hoped would play next time. To their pleasant surprise, the following year’s festival doubled the number of participants and workshops, and the lineup included some of the most admired ukulele players in the world.

“It isn’t just about tip-toeing through the tulips. You really can see some really high-caliber musicianship,” Blackwell said.

Since the charming instrument brought its tropical sounds over from its native Hawaii in the early 1900s, the uke phenomenon has become a quickly growing trend. Eugene already has several ukulele orchestras, including the Ukulaneys and Mele Ohana, which meet monthly to jam with 30 to 60 participants.

“It’s been kind of gradual building for about five years now. You just see it all over the place now,” co-organizer Brook Adams said.

Adams said the instrument is successful because it’s easy to play and travel-friendly.
“You can’t carry a guitar on a bike very easily. It doesn’t really invade the space the way a guitar does,” Adams said.

The ukulele tuning makes complex jazz chords simple to finger, and it is easy to sing along. Song-writing and technique workshops like “insta-uke” will recruit new players by giving people a chance to try out the instrument. Blackwell said a complete beginner can learn the easier songs within minutes.

“Ukulele has a short learning curve,” he said.

Modern ukulele players extend the instrument past its traditional roots to new genres.
“I found that you can play anything on the ukulele,” said Adams, who began playing the ukulele seven years ago with songs by Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols. Adams will be perform with his band, the Swingin’ Marmalukeys, which plays ’60s and ’70s pop hits in style of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy swing.

Also performing at the Uketoberfest will be University undergraduate Craig Chee, a former student of ukulele top-dog Jake Shimabukuro. Chee picked up the instrument in the third grade and has performed professionally for five years.

“I wanted to have something to share in front of other people,” said Chee, who is majoring in art. “I’ve definitely been lucky to be a part of the increasing popularity in the ukulele. I mean, just a huge interest. It’s been having such a great response.” Chee, who will perform with both traditional and contemporary Hawaiian groups, will also be teaching workshops.

“I love teaching. It’s one of my favorite things besides performing. I get to watch someone develop. It’s always that moment when they realize that it’s not as daunting as they thought — it’s just the best experience ever,” Chee said.

Probably the most forward-looking of this year’s Uketoberfest guests is Boulder Acoustic Society. Dubbed the “new wave of American roots music,” the Boulder Acoustic Society dabbles in blues, folk, gospel, indie and world music. “They’re just scary. A bunch of young guys who play their instruments really well. You never know what they are going to do,” Adams said.

Additionally, this year’s Uketoberfest line-up will include Victoria Vox with her odd mouth-trumpet solos, the Canote Brothers, Ralph Shaw, Mitch Hider and folk guitar legend Moe Dixon, who discovered ukulele three years ago and is “totally psyched.” “He’s so professional that within two minutes of being on stage, the whole crowd will be singing along,” Adams said.

“Most festivals focus on a genre of music; it all probably starts to sound the same. But when you have a festival focused on an instrument, it’s really fun,” Blackwell said.

For the family member who was forcibly dragged along, there is always the hula workshop.

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