That ukulele thing
For the umpteenth time over the past few years, I’m doing a media interview today, in part based on my work as a ukulele player, performer, and advocate. (This one’s with the superb songwriter and radio host Blair Packham on Toronto’s Newstalk 1010.)
Just this past weekend at Mariposa Folk Festival, I hosted a ukulele workshop, one of several I’m doing this summer at festivals across this land. My dog has fleas, alright, and they’re catching. Colour me grateful!
It’s partly luck, and partly timing. I picked up the uke before the mass resurgence of the instrument (but well after James Hill, Manitoba Hal, and Ralph Shaw, among many others who toiled in the trenches).
I earned a bit of notoriety by writing and playing on and for the instrument, both as a solo artist, and with my band The McFlies.
In 2009 I co-founded the Corktown Ukulele Jam, and hosted it weekly for a couple of years, helping foster the revival of the uke in the Toronto area and beyond. With the concentration of media in The Big Smoke, it was inevitable our adventures – campfires, canoes, streetcars – would get some headlines, and sure enough: CBC, National Post, Toronto Star, Global News, The Globe and Mail all picked up on our activities and our reputation grew.
Now that I’ve stepped away to focus on Roots Music Canada, and my own music and writing, the jam has continued to thrive under the excellent leadership of my friend Steve McNie. Eighty-odd (pun intended) uke players filling a pub every week is still a sight worth seeing, and I’ll see some of you there tonight.
The uke has more or less re-entered popular culture today, showing up in movies and commercials with increasing frequency. As I write, my fiancée (who’s much, much hipper than me) is strumming away at You Always Hurt The One You Love, the tune Ryan Gosling played on uke in Blue Valentine. In Toronto, at least, it’s no longer unusual sight to see someone strumming away on one in the park, as I did yesterday at the Cabbagetown Farmer’s Market. It wasn’t even someone I knew! Last night I rode a streetcar with my uke in hand and had two fellow players, both complete strangers, strike up conversations with me.
The workshop I hosted at Mariposa featured Magoo, Reid Jamieson, and David Celia; only four of at least a dozen musicians on site who use the uke as part of their acts. True, I still get a lot of curiousity and surprise when I play the uke in smaller centres – like Elphin Roots Festival a few weeks back – but that too will wane in time, as the instrument becomes a fully embedded in contemporary musical culture, as it ought to be.
The question I’m asked most often these days is not “When did the uke become such a big deal?” but “When will this uke fad end?” Which I always answer with another question: “When do you think this guitar craze will end?” After all, before the rise of rock & roll, the guitar was about as ubiquitous as the accordion. Mass production and the fashion factor combined to put one in just about every home. The same has happened with the uke.
Like the guitar, the uke has a unique sound, is portable, versatile, and affordable. Unlike the guitar, it’s easy to play. Like the guitar, it’s become somewhat of a status symbol, even if it’s a slightly nerdy one (you know it’s more than just a fad when Eddie Veder puts out a uke album). But unlike the guitar, the uke is more silly than sexy. This is a good thing. Playing an instrument to be cool creates tension. Playing an instrument to be musical creates joy.
The folk crowd, especially, ought to be welcoming the uke back with open arms. An instrument that anyone can play and sing along to, that lends itself beautifully to campfire or picnic jams, that keeps the lonely apartment dweller strummimg into the night, that serves the needs of the budding singer or songwriter for practically nothing… is a fine thing; a fond thing; a folk thing.
And folks, it’s here to stay. Let’s face it: our dog has fleas. Ain’t she sweet?