All Things Ukulele: Summer of uke 

If every month could be like the month of June, this writer is pretty sure Ukuleles could change the world.

By the time I moved to Noblesville with my family three years ago, I was pretty sure I’d already morphed from a gallery-hopping Indianapolis socialite to a rarely-goes-anywhere-without-her-kids-gee-when’s-the-last-time-she-colored-her-hair-type Mom. I thought that the move to the suburbs of Hamilton County signified the final nail in the coffin of my formerly-fabulous life. But, fast forward one year, and there’s me—kids in tow, of course—sitting cross-legged on the floor of The Wild, clutching a cheap ukulele in my nervous hands, learning my very first chords from the Blue Stone Folk School’s Geoff Davis. And that was the beginning of a new passion and perspective in the life of Miss Joni.

Two years later, I have upgraded from that first, inexpensive ukulele. There’s usually a ukulele at arm’s reach just about anywhere in the house. I’ve evolved from a person who was afraid to strum a chord alone to someone who is willing to play with others, or even alone. Being a natural ham, it was only a matter of time before, under pressure, I was convinced to sing a song or two, in front of someone other than my immediate family. I’ve had the opportunity to meet some new and amazing people and to try things I’d never dreamed of trying. Like teaching a group of kids how to play, then having the pleasure of watching them perform. Or, primitive camping with a bunch of other ukulele players. Or maybe, this summer, building my own cigar box ukulele. Or, playing uke in an all-girl band. Or maybe, just maybe, being brave enough to step on the stage at the 2011 Ukulele World Congress and playing a song or two. I have a year to practice for that one!

June has been a big month in for ukuleles. From movies, festivals, performances and a T.V. appearance, the little ukulele’s star is flying high. Equipped with a summer all to myself, I’ve vowed not to miss a minute of the ukulele goodness—and I am going to share as much as possible with you. First, there was the Ukulele World Congress. From June 4-6, ukulele players from across the nation and as far away as The United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany, France and Australia congregated in an empty field in Needmore, Indiana. Sponsored by Nashville’s Mainland Ukes , this was the Woodstock of ukulele gatherings, complete with bonfire, camping, unwashed people and plenty of togetherness. Not wanting to miss out on such an appealing event, I packed up the ukes, kids, and a borrowed tent, and, headed south for the weekend. What we found was an open field brimming with ukuleles and players of all descriptions. There was no schedule, so the entire event simply flowed and became what it was. At first, I found this a little off putting, but as I saw the evening progress, and later, read postings of attendees, I realized that the Ukulele World Congress could not have been run any other way.

The ages of musicians and styles of music played on the open stage that weekend were as varied as the flora and fauna that surrounded us, and ukuleles were strummed, plucked and chunked from every corner of the field. Songs performed on the open stage ran the gamut from classic old time songs to Hawaiian to pop tunes to singer-songwriter creations. If you are wondering what a weekend filled with about 200 ukulele players all packed in an Indiana field looks like, You can check out plenty of UWC 2010 videos on YouTube. I walked away completely inspired and fully coveting the beautiful Mainland Ukuleles. I think I’ve gone to sleep dreaming of owning a Mainland mango soprano uke every night since I came home.

I think that this sampling, performed by The Flea-bitten Dawgs, best demonstrates the feel of the event and the caliber of talent that was present at this wonderful gathering. I only wish someone had recorded their version of Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, performed on the open stage Friday night. With the enormous bon fire burning behind me, these guys on stage in front of me, and my daughter chasing fireflies right next to me, I reached some kind of ukulele-induced euphoria.

Next, in the wonderful world of television, A KAMAKA UKULELE made a cameo appearance during the season finale of the FOX hit TV show, GLEE. The song of choice—an interpretation of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow —was already well on the road to becoming an all-out cliché, having been self-consciously played during some of Television’s most poignant fictional and real-life moments, including the death of Dr. Mark Green on ER and during a tribute for NBC’s Meet the Press host Tim Russert. The GLEE performance pretty much seals the deal.

In fact, the GLEE finale created somewhat of a mild uproar in the ukulele community. Some folks applauded the mere presence of a quality uke like Kamaka on national television. After all, the last memorable time a uke was strummed on national television (and oddly, on the FOX network as well) really didn’t do much to raise the coolness factor of uke, when 2008 American Idol contender Jason Castro strummed a ho-hum Oscar Schmidt uke to accompany himself while singing, of course, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Others, probably from the I-knew-about-it-before-it-was-cool-camp, grumbled about the choice of song for GLEE. One blogger, at, went so far as to call the performance “gratuitous”, drawing parallels between Somewhere Over the Rainbow for ukulele and Stairway to Heaven for 1970s dormitory guitar hacks.

There are some ukers who insist on learning the song in every key, and gleefully share the tabs for every version they can find. There are others who steadfastly refuse to ever learn to play the song, feigning ignorance when asked to play it. “Somewhere over the Rainbow? Never heard of it.”
To demonstrate the overkill of the song:

This is a live performance by the Glee cast, but I really wanted you to see the excellent Koa wood Kamaka ukulele.

Are you sick of it yet? Even if you are, the original Iz version represents a great performance and deserves a good listen:

A movie that explores “the amazing comeback of a musical underdog” has been touring the world and scooping up prizes at film festivals along the way. From what I understand, folks who attend the film show up with ukuleles in hand. Sounds good to me. And, I’ve heard from a couple of people who have been lucky enough to see the “The Mighty Uke” for themselves, and they are full of praise.

By the way, I’ve corresponded with the producer of the film, and she’s looking for an Indianapolis venue. I can’t think of a better experience to highlight the Summer of Uke than a screening of this film.

Then, there was Julia Nunes. While she’s not not my favorite uker, you have to admit, she’s been doing plenty to advance the popularity of the four-stringed instrument. Along with touring with the Bonnaroo Music Festival, performing with Ben Folds and being applauded on NPR, she was also featured in NUVO before her June 8 show at RadioRadio. Try as I might, I can’t get myself to like her singing and strumming style, but you have to admit, the girl has gusto. And, she loves her Bushman uke. And, for that, I’d love to shake her hand.
Have a listen:

Better than Julia Nunes, in my opinion, is the Indy folk duo, Pholly. They’ve been shaking things up all over town for quite awhile, and were even featured in the January issue of Indianapolis Monthly. With Phoebe Davis singing and showing her stuff on the ukulele her dad built for her and Molly Grooms belting out tunes in that ready-for-Broadway voice of hers, you can’t help but get excited over the talent this pair packs. If you haven’t had the chance to see these Noblesville teens perform, your next chance is this Thursday, June 24, when they will be opening a Blue Stone Folk School Folk Series Concert for the Lawrence, Kansas-based old time band, The Praire Acre at the Noble Coffee and Tea Co. on the town square in Noblesville. The show begins at 7. Adult tickets are $10 at the door. If you are a student, you get a discount.


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