Ukulele: A plucky instrument with a big following

Posted June 14, 2013, at 6:28 a.m.
Last modified June 19, 2013, at 8:34 p.m.

The ukulele is a small instrument with a big following. Popular in the 1920s and again in the 1950s, the diminutive relation of the guitar and charango is back and more in demand than ever.

“Whatever goes around, comes around again,” said Joel Eckhaus, a South Portland luthier who specializes in making ukes.“Ukuleles have been one of my mainstays for the past 10 or 15 years.”

Eckhaus made his first uke in the 1970s. Since then, he’s made hundreds of plucky instruments for the likes of of Neko Case and Eddie Vedder. He also studied ukulele with old master Roy Smeck in the early 1980s. Eckhaus now travels across the country, spreading the gospel of the uke and teaching lessons.

“I have over 300 ukuleles in stock at any given time,” said Tim Emery at Buckdancer’s Choice Music Company on St. John Street in Portland.

It wasn’t always the case. A decade ago, he only carried a handful around the holidays.

“Nowadays, we sell a ukulele every day, at least,” said Emery in front of a window festooned with ukes with price tags ranging from $40 to several hundred dollars.

Emery chalks up the ukulele’s resurgence to contemporary players like Jake Shimabukuro and Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. But, he adds, there’s more to it than that.

“You don’t buy a uke and play it by yourself,” he said.

Ukulele ensembles have sprung up in Newport, Falmouth and on Peaks Island in Portland. Several libraries, including those in Portland and Falmouth, are now lending the plucky instruments.

Faith York of Peaks Island got a ukulele for Christmas and, on a whim, asked if anyone on the island’s listserve wanted to play with her.

“I expected to get five or six people. We’d meet in my living room,” she said. “Well, within 24 hours I had 35 responses.”

Thus, the Peaks Island Ukulele Group, better known as PIUKE, was born.

York isn’t quite sure why the humble uke has gotten so hot.

“I don’t know. It’s easy to play, it’s accessible — low stress, low expectations,” she said. “Let’s just have fun. And it’s amazing what you can do.”

Nina Allen Miller plays French horn with the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

“That’s hard work,” Miller said. “I was looking for something that would be fun hard work.”

So, she picked up the ukulele and joined the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, or FLUKES. The group meets once a week and has grown from eight to 30 members in a year.

“It’s addictive. You just want to play; you want to keep practicing,” she said. “You want to play with other people. You want to sing. You want to share music, which is what it’s all about.