tiny and mighty
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Tiny and Mighty
Stephanie R. Conner
September, 2010, Page 52
The ukulele, once just a staple of Hawaiian ceremonies and luaus, has found modern-day success with East Valley audiences and retailers.
The high, sweet strum of the ukulele can transport you to another place and time. For some, it stands as an icon of the 1950s, one of the instrument’s historical heydays. For others, it’s an aural reminder of a Hawaiian vacation. But for some Valley musicians, the ukulele isn’t from a bygone era or faraway place, and they have front-row tickets to the instrument’s renaissance here in the Valley.
Pat McInnis, who started playing the ukulele in 1951 when he served in the U.S. Navy as an electronics technician, put the instrument aside when he started his family. After a Hawaiian vacation in 2006, he rediscovered the instrument and today prides himself “on being a trumpet player for the ukulele.”
“What I love about the ukulele is that it’s a simple instrument to learn to play,” he explains. “I can teach someone to play a song in half an hour.”
In 2006, McInnis started the Scottsdale Strummers, a group of mostly seniors and novices that meets at the Granite Reef Senior Center in Scottsdale every Friday morning. What began with one or two ukulele players has grown slowly but steadily over the years – today, 15 or more people attend. And in 2008, McInnis started a ukulele kanikapila – essentially, a jam session – at the same location, welcoming players of all ages on the third Monday evening of the month.
McInnis also has seen the ukulele gain favor at folk festivals. “Maybe three to four years ago, there were no ukulele players,” he notes. “At the Flagstaff Folk Festival last year, there were three acts exclusive to the ukulele and two bands that had ukulele players. The ukulele is slowly making inroads in the music community.”
That has translated into increased sales at Milano Music in Mesa.
“We’ve always carried ukuleles, but in the last five to six years, we’ve gotten pretty aggressive,” says store manager Jim Minch, adding that the shop sells 10 to 15 ukuleles per week.
“The ukulele has gotten very, very popular,” he says. “It’s so easy to pick up and hold – it’s been embraced by all age groups. I think that’s why we’ve seen our numbers go up.”
Other musicians agree that the ukelele strikes a certain chord. Tempe’s Ukulele Ray, a best-selling ukulele artist and the first professional artist to play a Fender ukulele in live performance and recording, says guitar sales are down nationwide, while uke sales are up.
Part of the music’s increasing popularity may be tied to its portability and to its low cost, says Chandler folk musician Todd Baio. About $35 to $50, he says, can get you a very decent ukulele.
Plus, the public’s understanding of the instrument is changing, he says.
“The thing with the ukulele is that for the longest time, people would associate it with a toy or Tiny Tim,” Baio notes, adding that the new generation sees the instrument’s potential.
“It’s not all tropical and Hawaiian music anymore,” Ukulele Ray adds.
With four sizes, ukuleles have varied sounds and can be used to create everything from folk music and Beatles- and Beach Boys-era oldies to more modern tunes, à la Jack Johnson and Eddie Vedder.
“You have rock musicians out there playing the ukulele now and incorporating the ukulele in their music,” says Ukulele Ray. “People see these big-name bands and performers. Those things have launched the ukulele.… Now the ukulele is way cool.”
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