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If you go
What: A concert featuring ukulele music in various styles
When: 7 p.m. today to close the Midwest Uke Fest at Folkcraft Instruments, 22133 Main St., Woodburn
Cost: $10
For more information: 800-433-3655
Midwest Uke Fest 2013

The ukulele takes center stage at the 2013 Midwest Uke Fest at Folkcraft Instruments in Woodburn, Ind., as more than 50 participants registered to take sessions from and listen to performances by renowned string-instrument musicians Gerald Ross, Bing Futch, Ehukai Teves and Butch Ross. Journal Gazette Video by Chad Ryan.

Hawaiian musician Ehukai Teves plays the blues on a ukulele.

Uke players find kindred souls at Woodburn fest

Photos by Chad Ryan | The Journal Gazette
Ukulele musician Gerald Ross, center right, leads a class session on single-note soloing to some of the 50 participants of the 2013 Midwest Uke Fest on Saturday at Folkcraft Instruments in Woodburn.

From the Big Island to Main Street, Woodburn.

An unlikely trajectory, perhaps – but one perfectly natural for Ehukai Teves, who found himself onstage Saturday morning singing and strumming traditional Hawaiian tunes to an admiring cadre of fellow ukulele players.

The scene was at Woodcraft Instruments, where owner Richard Ash was hosting the second annual Midwest Ukulele Fest.

Just shy of 50 players from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan and as far away as Florida, California, Maine and Texas had gathered to share tips.

Yes, the humble four-stringed cousin of the guitar is now undergoing what Ash calls resurgence in interest.

“The ukulele is probably the most popular instrument on the planet right now,” he says. “They’re fun to play and easy to play and accessible to people without a music background.”

Still, the instrument is likely to draw snickers from those old enough to remember Tiny Tim and “Tiptoe through the Tulips” but not old enough to remember when even Elvis had a uke slung across those gyrating hips.

Google “Blue Hawaii” for proof.

But like everything else that goes in cycles, the uke has found a new generation of players.

Guest instructor Bing Futch – in dreadlocks and nose jewelry – says he thinks the upswing started when Jake Shimabukuro’s virtuoso ’lele version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” by late Beatle George Harrison went viral on YouTube about 2006.

“People used to laugh at it and didn’t realize it could be played in a serious way. They looked at the uke as a joke instrument,” says Futch, who teaches ukulele by Skype.

But now several pop artists have picked up its plucky sound – from Jason Mraz (“I’m Yours”) and Train (“Hey, Soul Sister”) to Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars, who’ve actually played the uke onstage.

“You can’t be sad when you’re playing the ukulele,” says 70-something festival participant Karl Winckel, a retired engineer attending with his wife, Fran, a retired cardiac nurse.

The two, from Pensacola, Fla., now live in their RV and spend winters in a park in Tucson, Ariz., where they started a ukulele group with about 25 other resident retirees.

“Hopefully, what we learn here we can bring back to the people we play with,” he says, adding that playing the instrument gives him an instant “in” with people he meets on the road.

“It’s amazing how popular this thing is,” he says.

Tom Bossardet, 54, of Holland, Mich., said he started playing the uke a few years ago after years of playing guitar.

He carries with him a prized possession – an unusual banjo-style uke with a round drum and a body and neck made out of exquisite birdseye maple.

“It’s kind of fun to get together and play with a group,” he says, adding that he’s played ukulele at festivals, church and even for weddings.

In the Fort Wayne area, Ash says, a new wrinkle is the TRU-Ukes Club. The name is shortened from Three Rivers United Ukulele Club.

The group meets for an informal jam session 2 to 3:30 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of the month, except in November and December at Folkcraft, 22133 Main St., Woodburn.

Folkcraft, whose main business is manufacturing dulcimers, started making ukuleles under the Druid Moon brand about four years ago, Ash says.

The business also sells sheet music for the instrument, including books featuring songs from TV’s “Glee” and heavy-metal band Black Sabbath.

“There aren’t a lot of companies making ukuleles – well, not nice ones not made in China and made out of plywood and plastic,” Ash says.

His company’s instruments sell for about $400 up and are “move-up” instruments for semi-serious players – even if they’re of the “sit-at-home-and strum” variety, as he puts it.

“I can’t stress the good-time joy of playing enough,” Ash says. “They love the ukulele. That’s why they play it.”

rsalter@jg.net

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