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Ukulele Festival Hits Bright Chord at the MACC
On the heels of weeks of bad weather and snow, a fanciful ukulele festival emerged at the Mountain Arts Community Center (MACC). Novices with their tiny, brightly colored guitars, streamed into the MACC, bright eyed with the promise of learning the century-old Hawaiin instrument.
“How many people are absolute beginners, this is your first time with a ukulele,” said Butch Ross, MACC’s resident ukulele instructor and the festival’s clinician. “We’ll call beginners folks that haven’t been doing this very long.” About nine students out of 20 raised their hands sheepishly.
“And anybody else that is more advanced… either you are more advanced or you haven’t been paying attention,” Ross jokes and everyone laughs, blowing off anxiety and nervousness.
“So that’s good, when you do something like this and it’s open to everyone and I’m the only one that’s teaching it’s a little hard to gauge what you’re going to get. So this is going to be classical finger style ukulele and we’ll start with Bach pieces,” he said with more laughing to follow.
“I just want to get the blood pumping…so what we’re going to do though is we’re going to start with basic chords. I always think about these things like a tractor pull, it starts out easy and works its way to something more complicated,” said Ross. “There will be three workshops, first workshop will be on chords, the second on strumming and picking, and the third will be on chord progression. We’ll learn the rudiments in the morning,” he said.
Students may not know they are partaking in a long-held tradition dating back to the nineteenth century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art said, “The instrument was probably introduced to Hawaii in 1879 by Portuguese settlers from Madeira who brought with them a small guitar called the braguinha.
The 'ukulele found favor in the court of the Hawaiian king David Kalākaua, a champion both of customary Hawaiian music and musical innovation. Under Kalākaua's patronage, the 'ukulele was adapted to accompany hula dance performances, transforming the more sedate tempo of earlier types of hula into the more lively rhythm characteristic of many hula performances today.
A ukulele festival at the MACC may seem kitchy and fun, but it’s a part of a broader movement of Ukulele Festivals around the nation. According to Wikipedia, “After the 1960s, the ukulele declined in popularity until the late 1990s, when interest in the instrument reappeared. During the 1990s, new manufacturers began producing ukuleles and a new generation of musicians took up the instrument.”
“Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole (now deceased) helped re-popularise the instrument, in particular with his 1993 medley of "Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World," used in films, television programs, and commercials.
YouTube also played a big role in the popularity of the ukulele. One of the first videos to go viral was Jake Shimabukuro's ukulele rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps. The video quickly went viral, and has received more than 12 million views.”
MACC’s festival brought people from as far away as Walker and Bradley Counties. Sherrie White came from Old Fort near Cleveland. “Yeah, you can tell, over the years you find more and more people playing,” said Sherrie.
The communal nature of a festival seems to attract Ukulele players, “I’d much rather do it like this, then one on one, You have to have a certain mindset to be attracted to it” said Sherrie. “Everyone gets along so well, everyone chatting, people who play ukulele enjoy showing other people how to play. I didn’t care how bad I was playing, it was just a lot of fun. It sounded good overall,” she added.
Students ranged in age from 9 years old to 65. Once again, proving this unassuming instrument has broad appeal.
“The goal of today is to teach you guys how to fish,” said Butch Ross. “ I want you to take private lessons from me, but I also don’t want you leaving here today saying you feel like you don’t HAVE to take private lessons from that guy so he can explain it all to me again.”