Art in Paradise: No More Ukes

A friend of mine got a ukulele a few years ago. He can play the thing well, and has a good warble to boot, so listening to the little bursts of stringy rhythm he produces is pretty swell.

He said, “You ought to get one. They’re tuned pretty much like a guitar, so you’d be fine.”

I thought maybe he was right. He was making some pretty cool sounds with his. Then again, I have enough guitars and not enough time to play them, so I dropped the idea.

Since then, things have changed. Now there are people in the world who are called “ukulele virtuosos.” There’s that Jake Shimabukuro, who tours all over tearing up stages with his wild fretboard gymnastics, daring people to laugh because “Hey, it’s a ukulele!” Even Eddie Vedder has now paired his patented “groaning brake” vocal style with the jaunty sheen of ukulele.

Hipsters walk down the street with them; they show up in encores when musicians want to produce a little frisson of cuteness to lighten the mood. But now, that little frisson can, easily, morph to a tingle of irritation. The term “slippery slope” comes to mind.

If we don’t wake up to their menace, before long, ukuleles are—mark my words—going to produce rage. We’re talking hotel-room-destroying, rampaging volcanoes of tropical anger.

Go ahead—listen to a ukulele for a minute. Call it a “uke.” See if you don’t feel a little pinpoint of something deep inside your cerebellum, a pinpoint that’s threatening, if we’re honest, to turn to a supernova. See if you can’t envision yourself as John Belushi in Animal House, in that scene where a young collegiate sort croons “I Gave My Love a Cherry” with his guitar. Belushi can’t stand it. He destroys the guitar and hands it back with a little shrug, saying “sorry.”

How much worse would it have been had that guitar been a miniature instrument, something designed to create an air of whimsy only outdone by the kazoo, that buzzy little font of forced cheerfulness? I submit that Belushi’s character might have ended up on death row.

Last month, Neutral Uke Hotel came to the Iron Horse. That project aims to taunt fans of the band Neutral Milk Hotel by playing that band’s album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea entirely on ukulele. So far, the results of that night have been kept mum. But I have my suspicions.

The cultural turn toward this little Hawaiian stringed instrument has disabused me forever of the notion of acquiring one. I don’t want that kind of responsibility. But I am, it seems, in the minority of musicians. Everybody’s getting out the things, and dreaming up new ways to incorporate the term “uke” into everything. Even right here in the Valley, people are getting into this business.

Next week, our fair Valley becomes a hotbed of ukulele action, if a recent press release is on the up and up. Julie Stepanek, who moved to the Valley in 2006, was the force behind the band Calamine, best known, perhaps, for the theme song from the Cartoon Network show Sealab 2021.

Something about the Valley seems to have motivated Stepanek to take up ukulele playing. Maybe it was that “Happy Valley” moniker you hear now and then. But now she’s not just playing the instrument for her own amusement. No, Stepanek is spreading the ukulele agenda, teaching kids in libraries and schools, and telling them stories accompanied by the instrument.

Things have gone farther than that. On May 24, the Valley will see its first “Uke Out.” That term may sound anti-uke, but in fact, it involves the import of two “legendary ukulele teachers,” Jim and Liz Beloff. Stepanek’s band Eloise the Great is slated to play, as is Joe Blumenthal’s AEIOUkes. The Beloffs are undermining civilization by, according to the press release, teaching people to pick up ukuleles worldwide.

That can only mean one thing: this overload of uke may get a lot worse before it gets better. Someone call the Fonz, and tell him to bring his water skis.

Uke-Out: May 24, 7 p.m., $5-15/suggested donation, Jones Library, 43 Amity St., Amherst.

Author: James Heflin

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