Ukuleles unite with laughter

Twenty-one years ago, a professional clown asked nationally known singer songwriter Bernice Lewis of Williamstown to help found the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra. They thought of the ukulele then as a novelty and a comic prop, she said. Now, in the group’s fifth incarnation, she, her daughter Mariah and Bernadette McMahon perform original ukulele music in three-part harmonies from the Berkshire Fringe Festival to FreshGrass.

Fourteen years ago, in a cold winter in Buffalo, N.Y., guitarist Stuart Fuchs saw a ukulele in a shop and bought it to brighten a grey day. He began playing it on the bus to strangers, he said. Last month he strummed Beatles riffs at the Port Townsend Ukulele Festival in Puget Sound, and he has become known as a performer and teacher at folk festivals across the country.

Stuart Fuchs plays ukulele. Photo courtesy of Stuart Fuchs.

The ukulele has seen a Renaissance in the U.S. and Canada in the past 12 years. Led by musicians like Jake Shimabukuro and James Hill, Lewis said, the small four-stringed instrument has turned into a widely popular phenomenon.

The LAUO and and Fuchs will celebrate their instruments at the fifth annual Ukefest at the Waubeeka Country Club in Williamstown, with Madeleine Grace as “Badeleine Madeleine” from New Palz, N.Y., and Michael Eck from Albany, N.Y., with live performances and an array of ukuleles on show.

Many ukulele musicians today began as guitarists, Lewis said, as she and Fuchs did.

“Around 2008 I began to take my Kamaka tenor uke out on concert gigs with my gypsy jazz band,” Fuchs said, “adding a few ukulele numbers into each concert set. … I turned my focus to unlocking the ukulele’s possibilities as a solo instrument.”

But as the ukulele has taken off, more and more people have started with it. The ukulele is inexpensive and friendly for beginners, Lewis said. To play well takes skill and time, but “to play ‘You Are My Sunshine’ at 7 or 8 years old is much easier than on guitar.”

She also finds the ukulele comfortable.

“I would love to find instrument builders who would look at our anatomy and create something that won’t strain our backs and shoulders,” she said. “I love playing the guitar, and I will never stop, but when I pick up the ukulele I gravitate toward it … it feels like it fits. I love the way it feels to hold it and play it.”

She would like to encourage people to compose original music for the ukulele, she said. She has a four-decade-long practice of composing for the guitar, and she can play guitar music fluidly on the ukulele, but composing for the ukulele directly is a very different practice. Her teenage daughter, who concentrates on the ukulele, has written some serious music for it. And she would also like to find more women composing.

“Badeleine Madeleine” Grace writes original tunes and has a strong right hand, a hard strum, Lewis said. She is also a professional farmer and managed the CSA at Mighty Food Farm in Pownal, Vt., before moving to New York about a year ago.

Fuchs has composed original gypsy jazz guitar music and co-arranged orchestral arrangements of Django Reinhardt’s music.

“I also write for the ukulele,” he said, “and I am exploring songwriting with lyrics more and more. … For me, it’s largely about color, tone and mood.”

The ukulele’s top string is tuned higher than the lower three, though some musicians tune that top G string an octave down.

“Using the standard ukulele tuning with a high G string, you have about two octaves to work with,” Fuchs said. “Add a low G and you get a few extra notes and a bass-like texture to the sound. … Some music just seems to fall out of the instrument the way hot butter runs off the edge of your toast.”

And nothing beats hearing the music live.

“There is an aliveness to the music and a vibration that can only be felt from acoustic sound waves and people coming together,” he said.

“There is nothing like singing with other people — nothing,” Lewis agreed. “I wanted to play music particularly with other women. That’s why I said yes to the Ladies’ Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra without thinking about it, 21 years ago. The rewards are visceral.”

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