Ukulele Festival

Small instrument draws big crowd

Sunday News Correspondent
August 24. 2013 9:26PM
Cyrus Graves, 19, and his aunt, Ellin Perry, traveled from their home in Montpelier, Vt., to play with other people at Nashua's first Ukulele Festival on Saturday. (BARBARA TAORMINA/Union Leader Correspondent)

When Michael Chung started planning Nashua's first Ukulele Festival last winter, friends figured about 25, maybe 30 people would show up for the event.

But plan a ukulele festival, and they will come - from all over New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Nashua's first Ukulele Festival at Greeley Park was a surprise for people who haven't paid much attention to the powerful little instrument. A couple of hundred musicians came to play and listen to a full afternoon of music performed by different bands and ukulele ensembles.

"I like to think of the ukulele as a very democratic instrument," said Chung, who grew up in Honolulu, where the ukulele made its debut.

"And it's easy," said Chung. "In five minutes, you can learn enough chords to get up and running."Chung and his son, Ben, who started a Ukulele Club at Bishop Guertin High, have been playing for years.

Chung said his son was amazed when he heard ukulele maestro Jake Shimabukuro perform and was instantly hooked. The Chungs, who also publish a ukulele newsletter, knew there was a growing interest in ukuleles, and having a citywide festival seemed like a logical step.

A lot of uke players credit the 2010 documentary "The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog," as the driving force behind the current ukulele renaissance.

Ukuleles have a long list of virtues. East Kingston resident Toby Russell, a member of the Southern New Hampshire Ukulele Group, said it's a very versatile instrument.

"We do country western music, "Flowers on the Wall," "Psycho Killer," just about everything," said Russell. "Anything can be played on a ukulele."

Laurie Bellin, a uke player from Salem, Mass., said she most enjoys hearing ukulele musicians perform cover songs "in uke style."

Concord resident Sam Brown, a musician who is planning a career in music therapy, brought his electric ukulele.

"It's easy to pick up, easy to play, and it's just so much fun," said Brown.

"And it's portable," Chung said with a laugh.

The ukulele's other big selling point seems to be that it's a social instrument. People strum ukuleles, and when there's strumming, a lot of time there's singing right behind it.

Nashua resident Bob Carlson said he and his wife have a big basket of low-skill musical instruments, including ukuleles, and when company comes over, the music starts.

"And it gets better after the first six-pack," Carlson said.

Although uke players all say it's an easy instrument to learn, it's not a simple instrument to master. Like many things, Chung said, ukulele music starts out simple and moves up to being highly complex. It's up to individual players to decide how much time they want to invest.

But whether one is an accomplished ukulele player or a beginner, Chung said, it's the instrument's unique sound that players and audiences like.

"Ukuleles have a frequency range similar to a child's voice," said Chung. "It's a bright, happy sound."

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