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Event Wed May 12 2010

Not Playing Around: Chicago's Ukulele Scene

Uke - Heather Smith.jpg

Heather Smith

[This piece (along with photos) comes to us from GB Merge writer MVP (and ukulele player) Jim Allenspach.]

The ukulele, that seemingly simple four-stringed instrument from Hawaii, has risen and fallen in the public consciousness throughout its 100-plus year history, but has never really gone away. It currently seems to be surging in popularity, as plenty of contemporary bands and musicians play the instrument and the sound of the uke can be heard in TV and radio commercials.

Once saddled with an undeserved reputation as a novelty or toy, the ukulele is increasingly being seen as a respectable, easy-to-learn musical instrument, but venues for budding musicians to practice their uke skills have been few and far between. After seeing an ukulele cabaret show in New York City, Mike Simons got the idea to produce a similar event in Chicago. His friend Tony Bianchi, who had taken uke lessons at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2000, excitedly (and, by his admission, a bit drunkenly) agreed to help out, and before long the two had their first event scheduled at Silvie's Lounge in February of 2008.

To the organizers' surprise, Chicago's Ukulele Cabaret shows have been popular right from the start. They started putting up fliers at the Old Town School to advertise the shows, but they reckon that the majority of people that show up nowadays hear about the Cabaret through word-of-mouth from other musicians.

Uke strumming technique.jpg

LCD

Ukulele Cabaret has been going strong for over two years now, having produced a show every few months. Simons and Bianchi started the Cabaret as a general showcase for local players to perform whatever songs they wanted to, but they soon had the idea of building each show around a theme, often related to a nearby holiday (the Valentine's Day shows are often the most popular, with standing-room-only crowds packing the performance space at Silvie's).

For the recent "Uke Soundtracks" show on Saturday, May 8, performers were asked to come up with a list of up to three songs from or inspired by movie, TV or theater soundtracks. Over the course of 4½ hours a roster of 17 acts, both newcomers to the cabaret and long-time attendees, took the soundtrack concept and came up with some novel song choices.


The show started off on a low-key, introspective mood with Lisa Abel's set of songs from Sesame Street, including a version of Ernie's contemplative "I Don't Want To Live On The Moon." From that simple start the crowd was treated to a wide variety of TV theme songs (Waylon Jennings' theme for "The Dukes of Hazard" was performed by an uke duo billed as Ukulayme) and inspired movie soundtrack choices (another duo, Heavy Boxes, charmed the crowd with their version of "Let's Hear It For The Boy" from the Footloose soundtrack).

Uke - Heavy Boxes.jpg

Heavy Boxes

Playing ability of the performers ranged from a few simple chords to complex picking solos and lightning-fast strums, but every act was cheered enthusiastically by the audience. It seems that the ukulele, in addition to its easy-to-play reputation, has the uncanny ability to charm an audience, especially if that audience is made up of other uke players.

The organizers are currently planning a larger ukulele festival for this August, at which they hope to give more stage time to some of the acts that have been performing their 15-minute sets at Cabaret nights over the years. They also hope to have an open mic stage at the festival, to continue the tradition of providing up-and-coming musicians the experience of playing to a crowd united by their fascination with, and respect for, the ukulele.

Interested ukulele players can get more information on Chicago Ukulele Cabaret through their Facebook page. People interested in becoming ukulele players can check out Pacific Island Resources as well as the series of ukulele workshops and classes offered at the Old Town School of Folk Music.

-Jim Allenspach

 

Jerry Schwartz / May 12, 2010 12:42 PM

The ukulele is SO severely underrated as an instrument--glad to see more folks giving it the credit it deserves!

ted / May 13, 2010 7:56 AM

As one of the founders of the Ukulele Cabaret, I have to wonder why Mike couldn't come up with his own original name for his shindig instead of copying every aspect of what we were doing right down to the name. I am flattered, not.

Mike & Tony / May 16, 2010 12:57 PM

Lucky for us Ted, our goal in putting this together here in Chicago was not to flatter you, but to take an inspired concept, present it to a vibrant community of local musicians, and see what happens. We have always credited the New York show we saw as the inspiration for trying this, and several of your regular performers have told us how great it is to see this happening in other places.

If we were trying to do this in your neck of the woods or cash in on the idea for profit, we'd see your ire justified. Since since neither is the case though, it seems a shame that you don't take pleasure in seeing such uke joy and creativity blossom across the country in the format you created.

Mike & Tony

Ted / May 18, 2010 12:08 PM

No problemo dudes. I just wish you could of come up with your own name. You know, originality and all that jazz?

Sure, borrow the concept. Heck we weren't the first to come up with the variety show. But couldn't you have thought of a novel name? How about Ukulele Novelty & Variety?

Lisa Abel / June 6, 2010 4:47 PM

We don't speak Whinese in Chicago, Ted.

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