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Happy Sounds Abound as Ukulele Gains Popularity

  • Deborah Block

The unexpected versatility of the small Hawaiian guitar known as the ukulele was on display this month at the annual UkeFest, at the Strathmore arts center in Bethesda, Maryland. For five days, both new and advanced ukulele musicians enjoyed classes, workshops and concerts.

Gary Carter and his son Matthew are taking an advanced ukulele class. Over the past four years, they have bonded over playing the ukulele.

“The ukulele’s a fun instrument, and it’s very joyful for me,” said Matthew Carter.

“And it really gives me an opportunity to share time with Matthew and something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life,” said his father.

The Carters were among the hundreds of people drawn to the workshops and performances at the Strathmore arts center, and to the UkeFests held each year across the United States and internationally.

Fourteen-year-old Jonathan Malks picked up the instrument a year ago and is already writing his own songs. “It’s very happy, the tone, and you can start playing some pretty intermediate to advanced songs in a short while.”

The ukulele is a popular instrument because it’s small, portable and considered easy to learn. Julie Siegel is just starting out. “You can play a one-chord song, and you can learn that in two minutes probably, so that’s the cool thing about the ukulele, four strings, not so hard.”

Five-year-old Alice Bradley started playing the instrument when she was only three. “I love playing the ukulele because I play fun songs.”

Eight-year-old Yoko Kona, who came all the way from Hawaii for the event, picked up the instrument for the first time just a few days ago. “It’s like a small guitar and it sounds very cool.”

She wanted to learn the ukulele after hearing it back home where it’s a part of traditional Hawaiian music. During Ukefest, The Hula Honeys from Hawaii provided a taste of that music.

The ukulele evolved from guitars brought to Hawaii in the late 1800’s by Portuguese immigrants. It made its way to the U.S. mainland where it's been seen largely as a novelty instrument, though its popularity has varied over the years. UkeFest organizer Cathy Fink said that in the last 10 years, the instrument has experienced another revival.

“There’s been sprouts all over the county, and really all over the world, of people who have started adapting ukulele to different styles of music,” said Fink.

Among them is Marc Revenson, also known as Lil' Rev, who travels around the US and Canada teaching people about the wide variety of music that can be played on the ukulele. “You can’t play a sad song on the ukulele. It tends to bring a lot of light and happiness into this world and that’s why I play the ukulele.”

Kevin Rank is pleased to be learning from top musicians at UkeFest. He said people who don’t play ukulele are surprised it can create a big sound. “I think a lot of them might think it might be a toy, or a novelty, but then when they hear it they realize it’s a serious instrument.”

A serious instrument that makes people smile and want to join in the fun.