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Newark Life

Four chords in the better place

Apr 24, 2018 02:33PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso who's considered to be the greatest player in the world, enjoys the fact that the musical instrument that has made him famous is not taken seriously.

Many people look at the ukulele more as a toy, and that's a good thing, Shimabukuro believes, because

rather than intimidate the musician, the ukulele is approachable, manageable, easy to lug around, fairly uncomplicated and, for the newcomer, highly affordable.

And then there's that sweet, unpretentious, friendly sound coming from the four strings of the ukulele, one that seems to ring in the ears like an invitation to put off all cares, pull up a chair and stay a while.

“If everyone played the ukulele,” Shimabukuro is quoted as saying, “the world would be a better place.”

The Newark Ukesters, a small group of ukulele enthusiasts who meet at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark on the first and third Tuesday evenings of every month, do not feel the obligation to keep Shimabukuro's hope alive. Rather, for a few hours a week, they work their fingers through chords and their voices through songs like, “Drop Baby Drop,” “Little Birds” and “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” for no greater reason than to share a common passion.

“I love the simplicity of the instrument,” said Frank McKelvey, who joined the Ukesters last October. “My ukulele is always there in my house and in the open, so it's very easy to pick up and put down and play with for as long as I wish to, whether it's five or ten minutes, or longer. To be able to convert music from a page to sound is good for everyone.

“It's like a form of meditation. It's like washing your mind from the other issues of the day.”

The Newark Ukesters, who now enjoy a 25-person membership, were formed last September by Jane Luke, largely out of a need to share her love of the ukulele with others.

“I kept thinking that there are a thousand ukulele players who regularly attend meet-up gatherings in Philadelphia, so what's wrong with Newark and Wilmington?” she said. “How come we can't get the same thing going on down here? If they can get a thousand, we can at least get a couple of people together here.”

When Luke was a child, growing up in Hawaii, the sound of the ukulele was everywhere, and she quickly learned some chords of her own. But, over time, her obligations changed and her relationship with the ukulele drifted away. About about eight years ago, Luke took up the instrument again, and it has remained her constant traveling companion on her many trips to Japan, Italy, Germany, Holland and Turkey in her role as a mental health professional who supports military families.

“I had played a guitar for a long time, but I have found that the ukulele has just as much complexity as a guitar, and it's easier to play,” Luke said. “I would play it a lot overseas in hotel rooms, but about two years ago, I began to think, 'I really have to start playing with other people, because playing solo isn't working for me,' so I began to have this vision of a group of ukulele players in Newark, playing outside on the Green at the University of Delaware.”

Developed in the 1880s in Portugal and later introduced to the Hawaiian Islands by Portuguese immigrants, the ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915. Its popularity quickly grew, and the instrument began to be heard in Hawaiian-themed songs written by Tin Pan Alley songwriters, and by entertainers like Roy Smeck and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. As the jazz age hit the U.S. in the 1920s, the ukulele became the instrument of the times. It was played by Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest V. Stoneman, as well as by early string bands, including Cowan Powers and his Family Band, Da Costa Woltz's Southern Broadcasters, Walter Smith and Friends, The Blankenship Family, The Hillbillies, and The Hilltop Singers.

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, the ukulele continued to be popular, appearing on many songs throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, before it declined in popularity over the next 20 years. By the 1990s, however, the instrument experienced a resurgence, as manufacturers began producing ukuleles and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument. In 1993, Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole helped repopularize the instrument, in particular with his reggae-like medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," which has been used in films, television programs and commercials.

Ukulele festivals are held throughout the world every year, and this year's lineup is no exception, with large concerts scheduled for the United States, Finland, Austria, New Zealand, Poland and the United Kingdom.

While no one in the Newark Ukesters aspires to be on the world stage, each member brings with him or her a story that connects the instrument, in some way, to their past.

When McKelvey was a college student in upstate New York in the 1960s, he was captivated by the folk music scene, which took the work of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary and made it a part of the common vernacular. What he was hearing inspired him, and soon McKelvey could be found playing his guitar with other students on the campuses of Hudson Valley Community College and Syracuse University.

Over time, however, his obligations changed – McKelvey began to raise a family and pursue a career – and eventually, his guitar became just a another neglected relic from his past, brought out occasionally for reminiscing.

“I had the urge a year or so ago to try a ukulele, because my finger stretching is not as severe as when I played a guitar,” McKelvey said. “This is a very sympathetic group. I am still learning, but it's a lot like

riding a bike. It comes back again to me. The fingering is different, but I am able to pick up pretty quickly from learning the basic dozen chords that we play here.”

For Karen Barker, who has been playing the ukulele seriously for the past two years, strumming the instrument takes her back to her childhood, when she would listen to her father playing while watching the Mummers Day Parade on television. Barker plays with the same ukulele her father used.

“I love to play a lot of Tin Pan Alley songs, just like he did,” said Barker, a middle school science teacher. “Even when he got older, in failing health and living with dementia, I would bring him his ukulele and play music with him. Even when he was forgetting other things, he could still remember to play.”

On a recent Tuesday evening at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark, the six members of the Newark Ukesters who were in attendance started songs, stopped them and started them up again in a gentle tug between performance and simple enjoyment. Instead of applause between songs, the room was filled with laughter.

“I read an article recently that said people who play music together improve their brain power,” Barker said. “For me, it's the love of acceptance, and the desire to sing and make music together. Playing the ukulele has not necessarily made me good at playing, but it makes me enthusiastic and happy.”

The Newark Ukesters ukulele group meets from 6 to 8 p.m. on the first and third Tuesdays of every month at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Newark (420 Willa Rd., Newark). To learn more about the group, visit its Facebook page.

Tips for Purchasing Your First Ukulele

Do you think you're ukulele ready? If so, follow these tips as you navigate your first steps into the instrument:

1. Determine your interest and skill level. Are you just a casual hobbyist or a fanatic? For example, you should reconsider buying a ukulele for $1,000 if you're just playing the ukulele as a casual hobby, or if you have zero musical background. Remember, you could just upgrade to a higher quality ukulele (aka more expensive) once you've mastered the basics.

2. Research the various types of ukuleles. There are four main types of ukuleles: soprano, concert (or alto), tenor, and baritone.

  • Soprano is the original, most common and smallest type of ukuleles, perfect for traveling. They have the jangly, light sound commonly associated with ukuleles. People with larger hands or fingers might have difficulties playing the soprano ukulele, as the frets are closer together. The strings also have less tension, so you might find it easy to accidentally bend a string out of tune.

  • Concert (or alto) ukuleles are a bit bigger than the soprano, so they have a deeper and a fuller sound than the soprano ones. As all the next uke sizes, it has a longer neck, and more frets as a result. This type of ukulele is easier to play for people with larger hands.

  • The Tenor ukulele is a little bigger than the concert, and the overall sound and tone is even fuller than its smaller siblings. It's great for performers.

  • Baritone ukuleles are the biggest of the ukes. They have the deepest sound, compared to the others, and while you can still strum a baritone ukulele like any other ukulele, you’re going to really lose that bright crisp sound that you’d get with soprano. It sounds more like a guitar. Great for blues players and anyone who prefers that deeper and fuller sound.

3. Understand the types of wooden ukuleles. If you've set your mind on a solid wood ukulele, mind the various types of wood from which they're made. Each wood has its special characteristics that affect the sound.

  • Mahogany - one of the most common woods in ukulele making, it has a reasonable grain finish providing good looks, but provides a good balance between the bright treble sounds the ukulele is famous for, whilst beefing up the bass. Also projects sound well and with good volume.

  • Koa - the best-known hardwood of the Hawaiian Islands. Acacia koa is a native forest tree, unique to Hawaii, and held in reverence. The wood is beautiful to look at with amazing grains (particularly the curly variety), very sweet sounding and warm. Loud, rich in sound, and used in the finest (and most expensive) ukuleles.

  • Cedar - a common, reddish soft wood often used in acoustic guitars, has a plain finish and provides a very warm sound, evenly distributed among the strings.

  • Spruce - very common, pale yellow wood used in guitar manufacture. Now seen on many cheaper ukuleles on the top only (usually with rosewood or mahogany backs and sides). It is a tough wood that makes for excellent strong soundboards and the Sitka variety is characterized by a very bright and rich tone, with less of the bass rounding that Mahogany provides. They are also very loud woods. Engelmann spruce is a slightly more mellow version which is often used in classical instruments.

  • Maple - good density and resistant, very treble, comes in many types. A hard, resilient wood that is often chosen for its dramatic looks, particularly flamed or spalted woods that are stunning to look at. It provides a very bright tone on the ukulele.

  • Mango - beautiful looking, orange wood with beautiful grain, that is used increasingly as a more sustainable wood choice (as Mango is a fruit tree, the wood is harvested after the tree is no longer efficiently producing fruit, and is then replanted). Mango provides a warm yet bright tone, similar to walnut.

4. Talk to other ukulele players. Ask for brand recommendations, and learn from them, whether they're experienced professionals or casual players. Find out which brands has the best sounding ukuleles, yet won't drill a hole in your wallet.

5. Find a good instrument shop. The store should have a variety choices of brands, types, and pricing of the ukulele. Ask your ukulele playing friends if they know of a good store near you.

6. Find the ukulele that's right for you. Hear the difference between the uke sizes. Once you figured the desirable size, pick a couple of instruments of different brands and examine them.


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