The humble ukulele stages a big comeback

March 8, 2014
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Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
Kayleigh Verno, a senior at Washingtion & Jefferson College, relaxes in the ski lodge of the college, playing her ukulele on a recent afternoon. Kayleigh has her own YouTube channel. Order a Print
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Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter
Guy Gargarella, a retired computer consultant, strums a tune during a gathering of Steel City Ukuleles. Order a Print
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Shanin Legg/For the Observer-Reporter
Brad Hundt of the Observer-Reporter gets a quick ukulele lesson from Marlene Parrish at a meeting of the Steel City Ukuleles in Regent Square in February. Order a Print
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Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter
Sunny Park, a Pittsburgh pediatrician, leads the Steel City Ukuleles as they strum through several songs. Order a Print
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Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter
The Rev. Renee Waun of Pittsburgh plays a bass ukulele during a Steel City Ukuleles jam session in Regent Square in February. Order a Print

PITTSBURGH – It’s a frigid Wednesday night in February and the brick streets ringing the Wilkins School Community Center near Regent Square are getting uncomfortably slick for anyone having to park a couple of blocks from the old elementary school.

Cutting through the chill and the darkness comes an undeniably sunny, warm sound – 19 ukuleles playing the Chiffons oldie “One Fine Day” in unison inside one of the building’s classrooms.

Other tunes follow – Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time,” the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love” and a salute to the just-departed Shirley Temple, “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”

A gathering of daffy old eccentrics who can’t bring themselves to cart their battered Don Ho and Tiny Tim albums off to the thrift store? Not at all. The group of strummers participating in the Steel City Ukuleles’ jam session represent a broad range of ages and professional attainment – there’s a pediatrician, a journalist, a retired nuclear engineer and a minister in the group’s ranks. Every month, members sip a little wine and thumb a thick songbook that has lyrics and chords to a wide-ranging selection of pop standards refashioned for the ukulele.

When they’re through playing, “Nobody is in a bad mood,” according to Guy Gargarella, a retired computer consultant who hails from Whitehall.

Steel City Ukuleles, formed in June 2011, is but one manifestation of what has become a full-blown ukulele revival. No longer a surefire marker of unfashionable cornball entertainers or pale tourists draped in leis, the humble ukulele has been embraced by rock stars, college students and everyday hobbyists looking for a quick, easy and inexpensive creative outlet. According to the National Association of Music Merchants, sales of ukuleles almost doubled between 2010 and 2012.

“We’ve sold them like crazy,” said Barry Kohler of Guitar Gallery & Drums in Canonsburg. From the Top Music Shop in Monongahela had about 20 ukuleles in stock early in February, their cost ranging from $50 to $350, and they host ukulele workshops for beginners and advanced players. The recorder is usually pegged as a “gateway” instrument for children, but Renee Teck, From the Top’s co-owner, pointed out that ukuleles also have become starter instruments for young people with musical inclinations, thanks to their light weight and simplicity.

“It’s just easier to manage,” she said. “There are only four strings, and the most important thing is that they’re nylon, so they don’t hurt your fingers. It’s very easy to get sound out of it.”

The origins of the ukulele are believed to date to the 19th century, when Portuguese immigrants brought a ukulele forerunner called a machete to the Hawaiian islands. From there, a ukulele was crafted. It is said to have gained a foothold among Hawaiians thanks to King Kalakaua, who reigned over the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1874 to 1891 and was taken with the instrument. Stateside audiences were first exposed to the ukulele during the Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, and it became commonplace in the 1920s, being strummed by both jazz players and country yodelers like Jimmie Rodgers. Arthur Godfrey frequently played the ukulele on his weekly television variety show in the 1950s.

Credit for the resurgence of the ukulele is given to a couple of different sources. Some cite its use by the band Train in its 2009 hit “Hey, Soul Sister,” while some pinpoint the beginnings of the revival all the way back to 1994, when George Harrison used the ukulele in the Beatles reunion recording, “Free as a Bird.” After Harrison died in 2001, his bandmate Paul McCartney paid tribute to him in concert by strumming a ukulele while singing Harrison’s “Something.” In the years since, Zooey Deschanel, Taylor Swift, Jack Johnson and Katy Perry are among the many musicians who have used ukuleles in concert or in their studio work. In 2011, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder released the disc “Ukulele Songs,” which covers 16 songs in just a tad over a half-hour and has originals and oldies like “Dream a Little Dream” and “Sleepless Nights.”

Though he hasn’t attained the household-name status of a McCartney, Swift, Vedder or Perry, 37-year-old Jake Shimabukuro has become an Elvis-level figure in the world of ukulele die-hards. The native of Hawaii became a YouTube smash in 2007 when his ferocious performance of the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” was posted and promptly went viral. As of the end of February, it had been viewed 1.7 million times. Several members of Steel City Ukuleles will be attending Shimabukuro’s sold-out concert at the Carnegie Lecture Hall in Oakland March 29.

“I love that people don’t take the instrument seriously,” Shimabukuro told NPR in 2011. “In fact, one of the best things about being a touring ukulele player is that audiences all over the world have such low expectations of the music. The ukulele is one of the easiest instruments to play, and you don’t have to be a musician to play it.”

Kayleigh Verno, a 2010 Trinity High School graduate and Washington & Jefferson College student, has her own YouTube channel where she posts clips of herself playing the ukulele under the handle Kayleigh V. Both her parents are guitar players, and she took up the ukulele when she was a sophomore in high school after unsuccessfully trying to play the guitar.

“My hands were too small for some of the chords,” Verno explained. On YouTube, she can be seen covering, among others, John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow” and Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away.”

Brenden Lesinski, a senior at Waynesburg Central High School, shares Verno’s enthusiasm for the ukulele. While visiting his grandmother in Florida in 2012, he saw a ukulele in the window of a guitar shop next door to an ice cream store he and his family were stopping at. He bought one and “started messing around with it.”

“I always loved going to the beach,” he added. “I always wanted to go surfing. I like the beach and that kind of mindset.”

He has since formed a ukulele-based group called Plum Alley. “All my friends think it’s really neat that I play the ukulele,” he said.

With bands forming, workshops being scheduled, videos being posted and superstars plunking away on them, the thousands of ukuleles that have been purchased in the last couple of years are unlikely to be relegated to basements or attics anytime soon.

“When you have a ukulele, you’ve got a party,” Teck said.

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. Brad holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from George State University in Atlanta, Ga., and a master’s in popular culture studies from Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. He has covered the arts and entertainment for the O-R, and also worked as a municipal beat reporter. He now serves as editorial page editor.

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