Sweet memories of my visit to Hawaii came flooding back when I attended the ukulele concert at The Forks on September 15, part of the Mass Appeal series of concerts.
A surprising number (about 80) ukulele musicians showed up at the The Oodena Celebration Circle. This location, a natural amphitheater, was chosen in memory of landscape architect Garry Hilderman, who envisioned and designed it. He was a member of the Ukulele Club of Winnipeg and loved to play the ukulele.
The ukulele originated in Hawaii. An instrument called the machete, a small four-string guitar-like instrument, was brought there by Portuguese immigrants and adapted into the modern version of the ukulele. As quoted in the 1879 Hawaiian Gazette, “Madeira Islanders, recently arrived here, have been delighting the people with nightly street concerts.”
King Kalākaua, who reigned from 1874 to 1891, was instrumental (no pun intended) in embedding the ukulele into Hawaiian culture. At royal gatherings he would have ukulele musicians provide entertainment.
In the early 1990’s, famous Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole helped make the ukulele a popular instrument throughout the world with his medley of Over the Rainbow and What a Wonderful World. The song was used in movies, TV shows, and commercials.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Kate Ferris, the organizer and director of the Mass Appeal’s ukulele performance. She was approached and hired by the Winnipeg Arts Council to plan, choose music, put the information and music online and direct this event.
Kate informed me there are a huge number of “ukeaholics” in Canada, and that the craze has increased within the last ten years.
In Winnipeg, there are more than 200 members of the “Ukulele Club of Winnipeg”. They meet every second Sunday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. at The Kings Head Pub.
If you have a ukulele and are interested in joining the group, the next get together is this Sunday, September 18. It is free, and everyone is welcome, regardless of ability. Even if you only know one chord, then you wait until that chord comes up and play it!
Kate has been a musician for a while, playing the guitar for forty years. I asked how her love of the ukulele came about.
She started playing seriously around 2004. A friend of hers, Hal Brolund (Manitoba Hal), had the idea to host a ukulele expo. It featured James Hill, now a known ukulele virtuoso, but at the time not that well known, and Ralph Shaw. Unfortunately the first expo was not that well attended as the idea of a ukulele event was ahead of its time.
For the expo, Hal had asked Kate’s husband Fred Casey, also a musician and founder of C. F. Casey Guitars, to build him four ukuleles. Kate watched her husband’s progress of the ukulele and decided that she liked it so much she wanted it for herself and bought it.
Fred’s ukuleles can be made from a variety of wood – maple, walnut, cherry, or Indian Rosewood. His website also mentions Koa, a wood native to Hawaii, but as it states, “prices will vary”.
I asked Kate how many he has made and she said, “The last one was shipped to L.A. and had serial number 82”. He had a booth at Folk Fest for many years (although not these past 2 years).
In 2009, and again in 2010, Kate and Fred went to Hawaii and studied with a ukulele teacher to enhance their skills. She told me, “When I pick up the guitar now it feels almost foreign.”
Kate told me about the time James Hill and Jake Shimabukuro played at the Winnipeg Folk Fest. The area around the stage was packed. How I would have liked to have been there for that!
YouTube has played a large role in increasing the ukulele’s popularity. Jake’s rendition of While My Guitar Gently Weeps was a YouTube sensation with more than 18 million viewers.
Kate also recommend I check out Jake’s version of Bohemian Rhapsody.
It was a treat for this Queen fan!
Prior to the concert participants were provided with online versions of the songs so they could familiarize themselves with the music in advance. From 6 to 7 p.m. there was a practice session with the group prior to the 7:30 concert.
Participants ranged in age from the golden years to 10-year old Violet. One person came from as far away as Thompson, and a group came in from Brandon.
I asked this delightful group of girls in the photo what made them start playing the ukulele. Casie said that she loved the sound of it, and convinced the other three to take it up with her.
Casie and Abby went to Nashville where they gained a further appreciation for it.
The girls, who traveled to Winnipeg from Portage la Prairie, were also influenced by Kate when she visited their school. Their role model, Grace VanderWaal, at age 12, just won “America’s Got Talent”.
The concert went off amazingly well considering as a whole, the group practiced each song only once. Some of the uniquely chosen songs are listed below. I particularly enjoyed Blame it on the Ukulele and The Log Driver’s Waltz. (Blame It On The Ukele video shot by Doug Kretchmer):
Blue Hawaii – Bing Crosby
The Log Driver’s Waltz – Kate and Anna McGarrigle
Kväsar Valsen – Alex & Richard og Kai Fristed
I’m Yours – Jason Mraz
Ceilito Lindo – Traditional Mexican
Stuck in the Middle with You – Steeler’s Wheel
Dona Nobis Pacem – Traditional
Moondance -Van Morrison
Harvest Moon – Neil Young
The Parting Glass – Traditional Irish
Blame it on the Ukulele – Eydie Gormé (sort of)