Jumping fleas! It’s uke time

The ukuleles come in all shapes and sizes.
Ron Gordon of Schenectady, left, founder of the Electric City Ukes, teaches players a note on the ukulele Monday at the Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady’s Stockade. Ron Witford of Clifton Park is looking on at right.
Ron Gordon of Schenectady, left, founder of the Electric City Ukes, teaches players a note on the ukulele Monday at the Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady’s Stockade. Ron Witford of Clifton Park is looking on at right.

The ukuleles come in all shapes and sizes.

There’s a banjo uke that looks like, yes, a miniature banjo. There’s the Fluke, a contemporary twist on the ukulele that features a flat base and triangular body and vaguely resembles a lute. There’s the 26-inch tenor ukulele, and the slightly smaller soprano ukulele.

Ukulele guru Ron Gordon shows off one of his ukuleles, a sleek, almost futuristic looking model. “It’s unique, because of its cedar top and this design,” Gordon explains. This, he says, is a concert ukulele, a mid-sized ukulele that produces a deeper, more guitar-like sound than other ukes.

These ukuleles were all on display last Monday at Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady, which once a month hosts Ukulele Night, an informal jam session and teach-in for ukulele aficionados of all skill levels. They are led by Gordon, a Schenectady resident who had long played the guitar, mandolin and banjo, but took up the lower-impact ukulele after getting tendinitis in his wrist.

In recent years, the ukulele has been undergoing something of a resurgence, said Gordon, who teaches ukulele courses and attends ukulele festivals. He decided to start hosting Ukulele Night a couple of years ago, after learning of similar gatherings from uke players throughout the country.

“This is growing,” Gordon said. “This is great. When I started teaching the ukulele five years ago, I would have five people in a class. Now I have 30. When I started Ukulele Night, I’d have two people here.”

The ukulele is definitely becoming more mainstream, said Jim Beloff, president of Flea Market Music, a Connecticut-based company that sells ukuleles, songbooks, CDs and other items. “This has been going on since the early ‘90s, but it’s been picking up steam lately,” he said. “The reasons are varied and interesting. … Especially in the 2000s, there’s an appreciation for something that’s thought of as a happy instrument. It’s associated with Hawaii, a beautiful part of the world.”

Ukulele Night runs for a couple of hours; the players begin gathering around 7 p.m., although the event doesn’t officially begin until 7:30 p.m. As they wait, they begin picking at their ukes. Almost any song, in any genre, can be played on the ukuele, and the sound of the gloomy anthem “Creep,” by the alternative rock band Radiohead can be heard, as well as the haunting Leonard Cohen ballad “Hallelujah.” The odd ukulele fact gets mentioned. “George Harrison’s favorite instrument was the ukulele,” one player remarks. Another says, “Tiny Tim used to carry his ukulele in a bag.”

bond of affection

Once Gordon arrives, wearing a Boston Red Sox baseball cap and a Hawaiian shirt with ukuleles on it, things become more organized. The players sit in a circle. Round Lake resident Dave Toledano, 41, an engineer with GE Research, hands out the sheet music to “In the Jailhouse Now,” the country song written by Jimmie Rodgers in 1928. Soon, the sound of a dozen ukuleles playing in unison fills the small cafe with light, melodious music, giving the somewhat mournful tune a bouncy, almost cheerful lilt.

“I had a friend named Ramblin’ Bob

Who used to steal, gamble and rob … ”

Other songs follow. “On Cocunut Island.” “Mr. Tambourine Man.” “Here Comes the Sun.” “When the Saints Go Marching In.” One man suggests “Big Blue Frog,” noting, “This is a good kazoo song.”

Many of the ukulele players at Moon and River came to the instrument later in life.

Mark Pietrafesa, 51, of Delmar, plays bass guitar in the Albany-based band Mud Bug Uprising, but decided to take up the ukulele about eight years ago. “The bass guitar is kind of a supporting instrument, the kind of instrument you have to play with other people,” he said. “I wanted something I could sit in the backyard with, and strum and sing songs.”

Pietrafesa began attending Ukulele Night last fall, after reading about the event in the newspaper. “Everybody I’ve met is really nice,” he said. Plus, they all understand his affection for the ukulele. “You tell people you play the ukulele and they think you’re a nut,” he said.

Toledano, who owns a Flea Market Music-manufactured Fluke, began playing the ukulele last summer, after attending a guitar workshop run by blues guitarist Del Rey, who was also really into the ukulele. He listened to a couple of her CDs, and liked what he heard. “I hadn’t really listened to the ukulele before,” he said. Because he was a guitar player, the ukulele was easy to pick up. “The ukulele is actually less intimidating than the guitar,” he said.

People often become interested in the ukulele for contrarian reasons, namely because it’s not a guitar, Beloff said. Initially, many ukulele players — himself included — were former guitar players who had given up their rock ’n’ roll dreams to start a career “but the desire to make music hadn’t gone away.”

gentle sound

“All the chops you had — all the experience you had playing the guitar pretty much applied to the ukulele,” he said. “And then there’s the happy thing, due to the higher pitched tone. There’s kind of a sweetness and innocence to it.” The gentle sound, as well as the small size, makes it easier to make music with your children, he said.

Beloff bought his first ukulele on a whim at a flea market in 1992. “It appealed to me,” he said. “It was small. I could travel with it.” At the time, he was working in sales at Billboard Magazine in Los Angeles. “The ukulele is small enough you can take it on a plane.”

Jay Freud, 61, of Clifton Park, purchased his uke in 1999, on a trip to Hawaii — “There are stores there that sell only ukuleles” — after falling in love with the instrument during his vacation. For years, he played alone. “I kind of felt like a lost soul, because everyone plays guitars,” he said. Then he discovered Ukulele Night. “When I found other people with the same affliction, I decided to embrace them.”

Freud said he plays his ukulele every night. “I get tense,” he said. “This helps me relax. I jam before I go to bed.” He described the instrument as “friendly” and “forgiving” — if a player makes a mistake, it doesn’t sound that bad. “That’s what makes it so beautiful,” he said.

Gordon always brings several ukuleles to Ukulele Night. (He owns about 12.) He gives one of the extras to a newcomer who has never played a ukulele before, but knows how to play the guitar and the drums. When a woman walks in, sans instrument, he exclaims, “You don’t have your uke!” She explains that she was traveling and just decided to stop by, and he hands her the other spare ukulele.

third wave

Ukulele means jumping flea in Hawaiian. The instrument was invented in the late 19th century, when Hawaiians transformed a small guitar brought to the islands by Portuguese sailors into a four-stringed instrument. (Guitars typically have six strings.)

The current ukulele renaissance is sometimes referred to as the third wave of interest in the ukulele in the United States, said Beloff, author of “The Ukulele: A Visual History.”

The instrument was also popular during the Jazz Age in the 1920s. It also became popular in the 1950s, when it was featured regularly on “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” a variety show whose host, Godfrey, played the ukulele. But, with the rise of rock ’n’ roll, the ukulele fell out of favor. People didn’t want to play the ukulele anymore; they wanted to play guitar.

Then, in the 1990s, things began to change. Hawaiian ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwo’ole recorded a version of “Somewhere Over the Radio” that was used in movies and television, including the highly rated episode of “ER” where Dr. Mark Greene dies of cancer in Hawaii. “That sweet high-pitched sound captured a lot of attention,” Beloff said.

The Beatles were all big ukulele fans, and a 2003 concert documentary, “Concert for George,” which features rock greats performing George Harrison’s music, helped stimulate more interest in the ukulele. In the film, Paul McCartney performs “Something” with a solo ukulele arrangement. After seeing the film, “Even more people said, ‘I’ve got to check this thing out,’ ” said Beloff, who had the chance to play ukulele with Harrison before he died. More recently, a clip of Hawaiian Jake Shimabukuro playing the Harrison-penned “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” became a YouTube sensation.

“We’ve seen the healing power of this little instrument,” Beloff said. “There’s something about the uke — it doesn’t come with stress and fear and pressure. There’s no special way to play it. It’s however you feel like playing it. It’s comfortable.” He said he often hears from people in their 30s, 40s and 50s who thought they’d never learn to play a musical instrument, but then acquired a ukulele. “We’ve seen how much joy it brings people,” he said. “Something happens when people get together and play it.”

The next Ukulele Night will be held on May 13 at 7:30 p.m. at Moon and River Cafe at 115 S. Ferry St. in Schenectady.

Categories: Schenectady County

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