Ukuleles tune up, turn up for UkeFest

The Hawaiian instrument gets some local love.

Two-time Grammy Award-winner Marcy Marxer joins other national and local acts for UkeFest 2014 this weekend at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen. The third annual festival also features workshops for novices and experienced ukulele players, as well as food and artisan vendors.

“I think of it as being a kind of community event,” said Gregg Kimball, member of the Broad Street Ramblers, one of the performers at this year’s festival. “There’s a lot of activity, a lot of great camaraderie among people who are passionate about the ukulele.”

Kimball said there’s been a “huge resurgence and interest in the ukulele recently.” From the music score of Arrested Development, prevalent media use of Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“, and the over 13 million views of Jake Shimabukuro’s masterful rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps“, many are picking up the instrument. “One thing about the ukulele is that it’s incredibly accessible: it’s fairly small–you can carry it around–and it’s relatively easy to get started on,” Kimball said. “Although like any instrument, if you play it very well it’s difficult.”

Here’s Jake Shimabukuro’s cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody”:

The ukulele is as Hawaiian as the state’s scenic landscapes and tacky shirts. But some credit must go to 19th Century Portuguese travelers who brought with them a small string instrument to the then Kingdom of Hawai’i. “This is a new instrument to native Hawaiians…because they didn’t have stringed instruments,”1 Kimball said. “It’s there that the Portuguese versions of these instruments get transformed [around the 1880s] into what we today know as the ukulele.”2

Not only did the ukulele become a Hawaiian staple, the instrument spread across the continental US through expositions featuring Hawaiian musicians. “So then it becomes part of American popular culture,” Kimball said.

Kimball’s own interest in ukulele-infused Hawaiian music came after he discovered a 1929 local recording session of the Tubize Royal Orchestra. “At the time we found these recordings being done in Richmond, we had no idea who these guys were,” Kimball said. “With some digging and the help from some local historians, we found out this was a local factory band. They were textile workers in Hopewell, VA and they were being recorded by a national company.”3

Kimball said the recording and subsequent radio airing contextualizes the ukulele’s popularity. “At that time [1920s and 1930s]…there was this enormous, enormous interest in ukuleles and Hawaiian music, even at the local level.”

The Broad Street Ramblers will perform several songs from that 1929 recording at this year’s UkeFest, as well as ukulele versions of blues and country songs, among others.

And while the festival appeals to ukulele aficionados, Kimball said it’s not limited to them. “One of the things that’s great about UkeFest is it’s accessible to someone who’s just starting out,4 or who appreciates the music, or just even the instrument as a work of art,” he said. “It’s very open. It’s really fun.”

UkeFest 2014 takes place Friday, November 7th – Saturday, November 8th at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen. Ticket prices vary.

Photo by Debby ☂

  1. “In fact, the guitar wasn’t known there until it was introduced by Portuguese immigrants as well.” 
  2. Ukulele roughly translates to Hawaiian as “jumping flea,” likely a nod to the rapid finger movements of the player’s fretting hand. 
  3. “They also were on WRVA radio in its early days.” 
  4. “There are workshops where you can learn everything from very simple chords, to then see people playing more advanced kinds of things,” Kimball said. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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