The ukulele gets a serious feminine touch at 7th Annual Berkshire Uke Fest

WILLIAMSTOWN — Berkshire County Uke Fest organizer Bernice Lewis believes the four-stringed instrument helps women overcome musical barriers.

"I think that most of Western music from the get-go has been kind of a masculine construct," Lewis said during a recent telephone interview in advance of the festival's seventh edition on Sunday, its first at The Williams Inn.

Lewis feels that many instruments' physical size inhibits women and others from approaching them. "Women and smaller people have trouble getting involved, and the ukulele has been a great entry-level situation and, for some people, even an end-goal situation," she said, noting that the instrument is more accessible for people with small hands than the guitar because it has fewer strings.

This year's festival will feature more women than men. Following morning workshops, The Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra (LAUO) of Berkshire County, Madeleine Grace, Sarah McNair and Snapback will play.

LAUO currently consists of Lewis, Dan Broad (upright bass) and Mariah Colorado Lewis, who is Lewis' daughter and a senior at Miss Hall's School in Pittsfield. They will play a mix of covers and originals, according to Lewis. When the longtime guitarist and songwriter was invited to join the orchestra more than two decades ago, she hadn't played the ukulele before. She still accepted.

"I wanted to play with women," she said.

Grace of Rosendale, N.Y., and McNair of Williamstown are both songwriters; the latter was once a member of the LAUO, too.

Snapback is a quartet split evenly between men and women, strumming pop `60s and `70s tunes by The Beatles and The Doobie Brothers, among others.

And the only solo male act, Williamstown's Bart Saxbe, will work with a baritone ukulele, perhaps singing in French at times.

While the ukulele may help some people evade the physical blockades to performing certain types of music, the instrument must hurdle its own obstacle: the stereotypes surrounding its sound and, consequently, its players.

"I think historically it's been seen as kind of something cute and lightweight, like you would expect whoever's playing it to be funny or irreverent," Lewis said.

The musician and educator hasn't shaken this herself.

"The things that I've written for the ukulele tend to be a little on the comedic side," she said.

Lewis said she often thinks about how ukulele can transcend its comedic roots, though she is encouraged by young ukulele players. For example, she has watched virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro offer his interpretation of some Bach on YouTube. Her daughter writes songs for the instrument that cover serious topics.

"That's not happened much until recently," Lewis said.

The improvement in the instrument's construction has helped facilitate this shift, Lewis says. She recalled when a student pulled out a state-of-the-art ukulele made of high-quality wood by North Adams luthier Nick Lenski.

"I just about fell off my chair it was so beautiful," she said.

Luthiers may have crafted similar works of art in Hawaii, where ukuleles have been ubiquitous for decades, but ukulele manufacturers in the continental U.S. have long settled for plastic and plywood.

Ukuleles will be on display at the festival, which starts at 10 a.m. A workshop for beginners will commence at that time, and an ensemble of intermediate players will play at 11.

At 1, the scheduled performers will take the stage, playing for three hours. Lewis is excited for this year's lineup, but ukulele fans will have to wait for future festivals to see true headliners, she said.

"Even though the ukulele itself is in this massive renaissance, the premier players are still kind of coming up through that," she said.


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