The Simmering Ukulele Scene


August 1, 2006

"I think it's an up-and-coming instrument," the folksinger and songwriter Heather Lev said, referring to the ukulele. She was among a cavalcade of performers Saturday night at the "Ukulele Cabaret,"a three-hour show at Jimmy's No. 43 in the East Village.

Interest appears to be growing in this small, four-stringed instrument that conjures images of leis, luaus, and Don Ho. The Boston area has "uke noir" evenings, and ukulele festivals have occurred in northern California and more recently in New York City. "The uke scene is developing around here. It's quietly simmering," an audience member, Keith Ninesling, whose stage name is "Moose Karloff," said.

Ted Gottfried and Jason Tagg of "Sonic Uke" are the local duo perhaps most responsible for the ukulele upswing. In addition to hosting the monthly cabaret, they produce a bi-weekly show on Manhattan cable called "Midnight Ukulele Disco."

Wearing white boas, Messrs. Tagg and Gottfried stepped onstage Saturday to perform their theme song, which began:

In a disillusioned state I was walking home one day,
My dead-end life was all work and no play,
When from the corner of my eye someone beckoned to me,
He said, 'Play the Ukulele and you'll see the new way'
You'll be filled with love,
From the sky above.
Ukuleles of love,
Raining from the sky above.

During one song, a hula dancer named Fred Maldonado (also a cameraman for the cable show) walked out in a grass skirt and danced to loud applause.

While the downstairs barroom overflowed with people, a parade of musicians from crooner to hard rock took the stage.

Patsy Monteleone covered "Ape Man" by the Kinks. David Hornbuckle held a banjo ukulele with a sharp, twanging sound, exclaiming, "I'm a Stone Age, space freak, punk rock, heavy metal, mountain man." Handing out "Ukulele Yes" buttons en route to the stage, Mary J. Martin sang about a man with a lateral lisp. And Iowa-born Kelli Rae Powell performed a cross between a drinking song and a lullaby called a "drinkaby."

Gio Gaynor filled the air with heavy metal songs on an electric ukulele.The New York Sun asked Mr. Gaynor which heavy metal tunes adapt best to ukuleles: "Songs with a distinctive riff," he said. He offered the examples of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" and Gun N' Roses's "Sweet Child O' Mine," but said his rendition of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" has "never been a crowd pleaser."

One who has found a wide audience in cyberspace is Mr. Hornbuckle, who was featured playing the ukulele on the Web site and received 100,000 views.

Each performer had a different story as to how they took up the ukulele. "I picked up the ukulele to woo somebody," Mr. Tagg said, adding that it is hard to show up under someone's window with a piano. Mr. Gottfried ordered a ukulele by mail, after reading an English-language Japanese newspaper that said ukuleles were sweeping Japan.

Most said the ukulele was relatively easy to learn to play. Ms. Martin, who has taught on Cape Cod and in Canada, stressed its versatility in a school setting. "When you play the ukulele, you learn rhythm, harmony, and the ability to sing and perform," she said.

Ever since the Portuguese allegedly introduced the ukulele to Hawaiians in the late 19th-century, the fretted instrument has had bursts of popularity when performed by Arthur Godfrey in the 1950s or Tiny Tim (ne Herbert Khaury) in the 1960s, whose falsetto voice gained world-wide fame on Rowan & Martin's show "Laugh In."Others who played the ukulele included Cliff Edwards, who in addition to being the voice of Walt Disney's Jiminy Cricket, was known as "Ukulele Ike." George Harrison enjoyed the ukulele, and Paul McCartney on tour has played one in remembrance of his fellow Beatle. Marilyn Monroe portrays a singer and ukulele player in "Some Like it Hot."

More recently, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro has gained wide audiences for his masterful playing in several styles of music. He has performed on the Late Show with Conan O'Brien, and is scheduled to appear with Jimmy Buffett in Camden, N.J., next month.

Asked how the ukulele scene in New York differs from elsewhere, Mr. Tagg said New Yorkers tend to be individualists, each having his or her own style or approach. "That," he added, "is the strength of a cabaret."