Audience tuned in at 'Uke-stock'

Monday September 24, 2012

WILLIAMSTOWN -- There were no grass skirts or coconut brassieres at the Clark Art Institute on Sunday. There were, however, several hours of very good ukulele music.

The second annual Ukulele Festival featured workshops and performances by some of the best "uke" players in the Northeast. It was, in many ways, the Woodstock of the ukulele world, or as one concert-goer termed it, "Uke-stock."

More than 150 people attended the two-hour show, hosted by longtime local musician Bernice Lewis and featuring several accomplished ukulele players. These included Lewis and her Ladies Auxiliary ukulele Orchestra, Man hattan-based Honor Finnegan, and Michelle J. Rodriguez of Costa Rica, a Williams College graduate who is the college's acting musical director this fall.

In addition, about 45 people attended each of the three ukulele workshops hosted by Jim Beloff of Clinton. Beloff, known as "Jumpin' Jim Beloff" in the ukulele world, is credited with being one of the individuals responsible for the latest national ukulele craze.

In addition to compiling 23 ukulele songbooks, which have sold more than 400,000 copies worldwide, he is also credited with inventing the "Fluke," an inexpensive but sturdy version of the instrument that is a big seller nationally.

Beloff and his wife, Elizabeth, were on hand to sell their songbooks and instruments and offer ukulele advice before and after the show. Beloff's sister and brother-in-law, Phyllis and Dale Webb, own the Magic Fluke Co., in Sheffield, the largest domestic ukulele manufacturer in the country.

The ukulele, the name of which has several origins, is a descendent of a four-stringed instrument called a machete, which was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors in the 19th century.

The instrument enjoyed a brief popularity in the late 19-teens, when it was introduced on the mainland at the Panama-Pacific International exposition in San Francisco in 1915. In the 1950s, actor Arthur Godfrey re-introduced it into the American entertainment pantheon, but in 1968, the uke became more of a novelty instrument when Tiny Tim popularized it.

But in this decade, artists such as Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam and Ann Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls, have recorded ukulele-based CDs. Since 2002, Sir Paul McCartney began playing the ukulele in concerts as a tribute to former fellow Beatle George Harrison. And Train's mega-hit "Hey Soul Sister" includes a ukulele passage.

"It's a truly joyful instrument," said Rodriguez, who plays several instruments and picked up the ukulele when she was 15, seven years ago. "It's easy to pick up, easy to carry around and easy to play."

"It's small, it's easy to work with," said Finnegan, whose latest CD, "The Tiny Life" is heavily flavored with ukulele music. "You can play it in a very rudimentary way, or you can play it in a complex way. I think that's the attraction for many people."

"It's a great fit for women," said Lewis. "There aren't a lot of instruments de signed for women's bodies. We don't have as much upper body strength [as men] I've played an electric guitar and a bass guitar, and it's not a very pretty sight."

Lewis originated the ukulele Fest "as a way to create a venue," for the instrument. Her "Ladies Auxiliary Orchestra" has been playing ukulele songs for more than 15 years. "I began running into people all over the country who play [ukuleles]."

To reach Derek Gentile:,
or (413) 496-6251.
On Twitter: @DerekGentile


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