The ukulele is gaining newfound respect
Post Independent Arts Writer
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
ROARING FORK VALLEY, Colorado – Fifteen-year-old Juliette Moffroid peeled the gift wrap off of the rectangular cardboard box, and emitted a small shriek.
“A ukulele!” yelped this Colorado Rocky Mountain School student in Carbondale as she opened the box, revealing an instrument that at first glance, looked like a small guitar.
There are those of us who grew up with Don Ho strumming a ukulele and warbling Hawaiian ballads. That’s when Tiny Tim wasn’t “tipto[ing] through the tulips” with his little ukulele (and yes, I’m fully aware that I’m dating myself here). That’s why the concept of a modern teenager coveting a ukulele is a bit perplexing.
That’s until you talk with 21-year-old Riley Skinner, who grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley and is now majoring in music at Bennington College in Vermont. When Skinner speaks of the ukulele, it’s with downright respect and reverence.
“In some ways, I sometimes feel as if I need to defend myself when I play the ukulele,” said Skinner, who plays the piano and guitar, though the ukulele is her preferred instrument. “Anyone can play the ukulele badly. It’s very difficult to play at an intermediate and advanced level.”
Skinner said the ukulele has a sound like no other.
“Part of the ukulele’s allure is that its sound has such timbre and texture,” she said. “It complements my voice.”
As Skinner and Moffroid can attest, other young musicians have found their way to the ukulele. Nelly Furtado, Taylor Swift and Zooey Deschanel feature the ukulele in their music.
And young women aren’t the only ones caught up in everything ukulele, or “uke” for short. Famous musicians such as Tom Petty, Eddie Vedder and Jimmy Buffett also incorporate ukes in their repertoire. Closer to home, Glenwood Music’s Travis Lucero said Glenwood Springs has its own ukulele pro.
“Andy Russell’s the man,” Lucero said, grabbing one of Russell’s business cards. “He does it all. He teaches, he performs, he does everything.”
“Kids adore him,” said Kevin Ware, who is also a member of Glenwood Music’s staff.
Indeed, Russell’s card makes you want to hire him for your next shindig. “Put some fun into your next BBQ or party with music!” it reads. “Learn to play!”
Even his email address makes his passion clear. “Ukulele King” it spells out.
Ware can almost name the day the ukulele began its slow rise to popularity – again.
“It was the movie ‘Finding Forrester,'” he said.
In the 2000 film, the late Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole sang a memorable combined rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” as ukulele playing is featured prominently. The song gained worldwide popularity after the singer’s death in 1997, but the subsequent movie gave enough exposure to the ukulele to begin a newfound interest in the instrument.
“All ages from 3 years old to 60,” said Ware when describing the typical uke aficionado.
Glenwood Music has a section devoted to a variety of ukuleles that range from $40 to more than $200, graduating in expense and quality from left to right.
“The kids love these Dolphin ukes,” said Lucero, who took one off the wall to strum it. “They come in all different colors and they have a little dolphin on the bridge.”
“We get them in by the box load,” said Ware. “And they go out that quickly because they’re cute and they’re relatively inexpensive, yet they’re a real instrument.”
Ukes come in a variety of brands, from Fluke to Fender, and a variety of shapes, from the traditional guitar to banjo and mandolin styles.
The materials differ too. Less expensive models can be made of plastic; the more professional ukuleles come in all types of fine wood.
“This one is a river uke,” said Ware, pulling an instrument from the wall. “It’s made of polymer, and it comes with a waterproof case, so it’s great for floating down the river.”
Wherever a uke is played, one thing’s for sure.
“It’s a happy instrument,” said Glenwood Music’s Ware with a smile. “George Harrison said you can’t play it without a smile on your face.”
“For me, I became interested in the ukulele because it is so different,” said Moffroid, who plays the piano as well. “I wanted something that was portable, as a piano really isn’t, and it has a funny sort of sound that I really like.”
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