instruments come and go; in the 60’s and 70’s it was the Vegamatic and the saxophone. Now it is the Cuisenart “Quickprep” and the Ukulele. Thirty years ago, the uke was hardly considered to be a musical instrument at all, or at least a musical instrument that any self-respecting person would want to be caught playing. Despite the fact that it had strings and an exotic tuning, it was also something that was thought to be strummed by peculiar fellows who wore white shoes and lived in places like Sheboygan. Ukulelists, moreover, were people, who, when they weren’t improving their uke technique, were assumed to be staying buff by watching Jack LaLane on Tuesday mornings,broadcast from WKC-TV in Des Moines. But those (and I sadly admit that I was one of them) who laughed at Ukulelists were wrong to do so on many counts. Jack LaLane is alive and vigorous in his 95th year, Sheboygan really is a pleasant town, and the Ukulele is perceived by anyone with a decent set of ears to be indisputably a beautiful musical instrument. A uke player can be as virtuosic and eloquent as any violin or bassoon soloist. And it’s tiny body can hold as many musical genres as there are rug and tile samples at Drexel’s or Republicans in Waukesha County. Rags, Tin Pan Ally, Klezmer, the Third Contrapunctus to the “Art Of The Fugue”….the ukulele can do it all with room to spare.
I knew all this before I attended the recent historic concert that ended Milwaukee’s first annual Ukulele Festival. After all, the last forty years of my life has been devoted to, more or less successfully, shedding the musical snobbery of my youth. If anything, this concert made me downright appalled that there was a time in my life when I didn’t take the Ukulele seriously. I left this concert not only in love with the instrument, but also feeling remorse that there was a time when I believed a third-rate performance of a Beethoven String Quartet was more worthwhile than a stunning rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” Victoria Vox opened with a brief but emotive set of traditional and self-composed tunes that showed her to be, not only a fine songwriter, but also a master of turning American parlor songs into works of art. I never thought of “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” as compelling as Das Lied Der Erde”…but Miss Vox pulled it off.
"The Amazing Heftones” were able to do the same thing. . They specialize in a different genre, Tin Pan Ally”. But they were able to make jaded viola players like me realize what we had been missing all our lives. While we were being abused by conductors of dubious abilities for not coordinating with the trombones in Ferde Grofe’s abominable “Grand Canyon Suite”, we could have been somewhere else, far away, having fun with a homemade bass fiddle and the tunes that our grandparents sang to each other when they were courting each other at the YMHA Summer youth camp in the Catskills.
Gerald Ross finished the set by showing off his refined chops on both the ukulele and the Hawaiian Steel Guitar. I was so moved by all this musical richness that I had to go home at intermission to regain my equilibrium. This was a pity, because the second half of the concert featured one of Milwaukee’s musical treasures: Frogwater and “Little Rev.” Had I stayed, I might have ended up buying a 150 dollar uke from one of the vendors who lined the sides of the hall. As it was, on the way out the door, I bought Victoria Vox’s latest C.D, which I am enjoying as I type these words.
There is a charming Autumn religious ritual that calls for penitents to cast off last year’s improprieties and bad intonation by throwing bread into a convenient body of water. If you can throw in bread, into the water, why not a viola? Unfortunately, I’m too late for this year. But next year, on that sacred day, I I know where I’m going: to Sheboygan to throw my viola into Lake Michigan and start over with a real musical instrument; the ukulele. But why wait? A year is too long. Ritual burnings can happen at anytime of year.