Berkshire residents find musical inspiration with ukulele

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One of the tiniest instruments around is making a big impact in the Berkshires, helping residents find and expand their musical voices.

These days, you can find a number of contemporary musicians embracing the instrument, like Jake Shimabukuro, Lisa Hannigan and Amanda Palmer, and bands like Allo Darlin' and the Corner Laughers. That's a bit of a surprise to some, who look at the ukulele as a sometimes cheesy affectation of Hawiian-themed music.

The instrument is Hawaiian — actually a Hawaiian adaptation of the machete, a small Portuguese instrument — created over a century ago. It became a staple in Hawaiian music in the late 1800s, and a mainstay with vaudeville stars like Cliff Edwards, which has cemented its reputation for decades.

But now, that's all changing, and a new generation is turning to the ukulele to express multi-faceted musical ideas, and the Berkshires has proven a stronghold for that movement.

Singer-songwriter Bernice Lewis is a prominent convert. Lewis is best known for her guitar-driven music, but two decades ago, she was asked to join the all-women Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra. She thought it was a good chance for collaboration.

"I had no interest in a ukulele at all," Lewis said. "I was pretty much solid with being a guitar player and doing what I do. I thought to myself, 'I don't play ukulele, but how hard could it be since I play guitar.'"

Once she picked up the instrument, she never put it down, falling in love with it for its simplicity, as well as its accessibility. Years of playing guitar has taken its toll on Lewis' neck and shoulders, and the ukulele has proven a perfect solution, along with smaller and lighter guitars.

Ukulele has become a huge part of Lewis' music, figuring into her solo work, as well as joint performance with her daughter, Mariah. She gives private lessons for the instrument, as well as public workshops, and also includes it in her song-writing section for the Rock On Workshop at Berkshire Community College.

Lewis also helms the Berkshire County Ukulele Fest, which just celebrated its fifth year in Williamstown, and performs at Uke 'n Brew Spring-a-lele Ukulele Festival, also in Williamstown. She firmly believes that the basic ease of the instrument is a big reason for its popularity.

"You can take a group of 20 people and have them jamming along in an hour," she said. "You can't do that with a guitar or any other instrument. I taught my nephew in a half hour."

The ease at which you can play the instrument can transform social lives and creative ones, as well. For Francesca Shanks, whose recent album, "Wolf Island," was released by Sounds And Tones Records, ukulele is the entire reason she is a musician.

"I wanted to play something," Shanks said. "I had never been able to play guitar. I picked it up, but it didn't work for me for whatever reason."

Shanks, then in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., wrote poetry and performed keyboards with a band that didn't actually demand any musical knowledge from her. A roommate's ukulele changed all that. She began to teach herself the instrument and realized it was the perfect match for her.

"The tone of the baritone ukulele goes correctly with my singing voice and it was awesome," said Shanks. "So, I just play ukulele now and that's my instrument, and I've never even tried to play a different instrument."

Shanks and a friend performed as a duo, My Rifle, for several years until she moved to the Berkshires, with no intention of performing ever again, until an opportunity in North Adams with the Common Folk Collective appeared. She now performs regularly in the area and is hoping to expand her sound with a planned second album.

"I'd love to get some percussion and maybe have a band and do some more arrangements around my songs," Shanks said. "I'm writing new songs for an album that I'm going to try and release in August. I would love to have some accompaniment on it, because the songs feel bigger than the songs on the album now."

Retired Stockbridge lawyer Robert Feuer can also claim ukulele changed his life, but for him, it was totally unexpected and largely on a whim. He bought a 100-year-old ukulele in an auction at the same time he was struggling with guitar lessons. The ukulele changed everything.

"When I picked up this little four-string monster with nylon strings, everything got easier," Feuer said.

He began studying ukulele at Berkshire Community College with teacher David Hodge, and soon ended up in BUB — the Berkshire Ukulele Band, a regular performance and education ukulele gathering headed by musician Rob Sanzone. The band has 10 ukuleles made by the Magic Fluke in Sheffield on loan to help beginners get started and meets Tuesday nights at 6:30 at the Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington.

"When people show that they haven't played before, we usually start with something simple, maybe a two-chord song," said Feuer. "We'll play that song together and [Sanzone will] show on a white board the fingering positions for those two chords, so as the evening progresses the songs get a little more complex, not much, and we not only play, but we sing together"

Feuer said these gatherings can pull in more than 40 people a night sometimes, with various ages attending, but notably populated by people over 40. Feuer also works with singer-songwriter Joanne Spies to improve their ukulele skills together. And though he loves playing ukulele, he plans on working his way up to guitar eventually.

"I bought a banjo, which is five strings," he said. "What I say to my friends is that I'm sneaking up on guitar, which is six strings."


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