Homegrown Popularity

Photo by Jessica Hock

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A quaint little shop with a yellow neon sign that reads “folk instruments” features guitars in the window. The store looks like a dwarf compared to the surrounding shops, bars and restaurants that fill the busy intersection of North Avenue and 69th Street in Wauwatosa.

Inside, the atmosphere is a contrast to the busy, nonstop environment on the sidewalk. A visitor hears the sound of bells and gets a timid greeting from a grey dog named Mona.

The overwhelming smell of freshly cut wood takes over the senses and music seeps through the thin walls of the adjacent room. All different types of wood-stringed instruments cover the walls, making it difficult to tell what the real color was.

Seated behind the glass counter, which displays various musical accessories, is Joe Moser, the owner of the independent music shop, who is settled at a small desk cluttered with disorganized papers and music sheets.

“It’s hard not to smile,” Moser says as he peers over his glasses and plinks the four strings of his ukulele. “It’s just a happy thing.”

Moser is quick to admit that when he first opened up North Star Music in 1986, he did not expect ukuleles of all shapes, colors and sizes to fill the main floor of his shop.

Ukes come in four sizes, including the smallest and most popular, a soprano, and the largest, a baritone, which is tuned like a guitar. They range in price from $45 to $250.

“The all solid-wood versions start at about $200,” says Moser, “while a guitar made out of the same materials would cost you at least $700, if not more.”

To keep up with demand, he decided in 2004 to make sure that his store consistently carried ukuleles, and the sales have only grown.

While the ukulele is still often viewed as the instrument of glass-skirted hula dancers or Tiny Tim wannabes, its recent comeback reaches beyond the city of Milwaukee.

According to Mike Upton, the owner of Kala Ukulele Company in California, the city is part of a global trend. Sales at Kala, one of the world’s largest brands, were up 70% in 2010 and continued to rise in 2011.

“By no means is this ukulele trend a regional or national thing,” says Upton. “Ukulele sales have also grown tremendously in New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom.”

The instrument is also increasingly hitting the airwaves across college campuses through bands such as Beirut, Arcade Fire and She & Him. The new wave of folk-influenced bands has recently been inspiring young adults to rush over to their local music store and try out the instrument for themselves.

“When you think about it, it’s really exciting that the younger generations have clinged to this little wooden thing,” says Moser. “But I know it’s an instrument for the young at heart, not just the young in age.”

Milwaukee Embraces Ukes

On a bright Saturday morning in October, around 100 people of all ages filed into the Sunset Playhouse in Elm Grove, carrying ukuleles on their backs and music sheets in their hands.

“We are full force into a worldwide ukulele revival,” says Marc Revenson, known as Lil Rev. “Just look at these people coming here just to dedicate an entire day to the ukulele.”

Lil Rev is a Milwaukee native who is an award-winning multi-instrumentalist with a particular passion for the ukulele. In 2009, he founded the Milwaukee Ukulele Club and the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival, predicting that the celebration would fare well in his home city.

“I know Lil Rev was really enthusiastic about bringing a ukulele club,” says Cherylann Kelly, cofounder of the Milwaukee Ukulele Club. “We watched ukulele communities pop up all over the United States and that’s when we decided to do the same.”

According to Kelly, the goal of the club is to create a learning environment for members in the community to develop their ukulele skills with other enthusiasts.

“The ukulele’s popularity is just undeniable,” Kelly says as she examines what vendors at the festival have to offer. “Maybe it’s a bit more of an underground popularity but when you look at how many members the club has or how many people attend this event yearly, you just can’t deny that.”

According to Lil Rev, at the Milwaukee Ukulele Club’s peak,  it had over 200 active members who followed up with tips and lessons on  the group’s Facebook page. Although that number is not nearly as high now, he says that many people still continue to show up to the club meetings once a month along with other various community concerts.

“The uke club somehow snowballed into a uke fest,” says Lil Rev. “As the excitement about this instrument grew and the amount of people finding it hard to travel for every club meeting, the yearly festival was just inevitable.”

This is the fourth Ukulele Festival held in Milwaukee which offered lessons for every difficulty level and performances by Pops Bayless, Ukulele Bart, the Fabulous Heftones and Lil Rev himself.

Dave Thornton, a long-time Milwaukee Ukulele member, is teaching a small group of players the strumming pattern for the popular Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwo’ole during an impromptu lesson.

“When the club first started, many members were around 40 years old or older,” says Thornton. “Now, so many younger players are joining which is encouraging news but also makes me feel old.”

“I can at least say I played the ukulele before it was cool,” says Thornton as he chuckles and repeats the strumming pattern.

A National Trend

Ukuleles have left their mark in cities across the globe and have made a significant impact on the Internet and social media websites.

On YouTube, videos range from the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain covering Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to a four year old jamming on a ukulele to the tune of I’m Yours by Jason Mraz. Some of the most popular ukulele videos have received more than a million views.

“If you just simply look at the hits I receive on my website or the number of requests I get in a day for me to tab a certain song, you can tell there is a growing number of ukulele players,” says Alastair Wood.

Wood is the founder of Uke Hunt, a popular website for ukulele players that provides online lessons and tabs to trending songs of all genres for the ukulele. Since its beginning in 2007, the number of people who visit the website yearly has increased by millions.

But many people wonder why this ukulele resurgence has catapulted in recent years. Some suggest the ukulele revolution could be blamed on the recent economic turmoil because of its affordable price and not because of a “change in tune.”

According to Lil Rev, ukuleles were prominent since the 1920s during the Great Depression in the United States but their popularity died out in the 1940s. The revolution slowly started in the late 1990s but grew significantly in recent years.

“The recession helped raise the ukulele to its peak popularity in the 1930s, when bluegrass took off,” says Lil Rev. “And for many the instrument is still associated with that period.”

“At the same time, the profile of folk music has grown rapidly in the past few years, edging the traditional rock n’ roll instruments out of the limelight for new players,” adds Lil Rev.

Joe Moser, the shop owner, agrees that the ukulele is “depression-friendly” and an inexpensive alternative to the guitar without losing quality — and simultaneously making people smile.

According to Moser, North Star Music has sold about 80 percent more ukuleles in the past few months than in recent years and he has even higher expectations for the next few months.

“Maybe there are a lot of similarities between the ukulele trend now and in the 20’s but I think this trend will last because of the Internet,” says Wood. “And because Tiny Tim isn’t around anymore to ruin it for us.”

The Future of the Ukulele

The sound of bells rings out as a costumer enters North Star Music. Mona the dog instantly gets up to greet the strange face and Moser offers a warm, welcoming smile.

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m actually looking to buy my first ukulele,” says Stephanie Hippensteel, a college student with noticeably blue hair. “I’ve always wanted one and now I’m committed!”

As Moser shows her around the store, he describes prices, models, woods, shapes, sizes, colors and strings. When her eye caught something she might like, he immediately picks up the ukulele and starts playing a familiar tune.

Hippensteel notes, “Every single one of my friends owns a ukulele. I’ve felt left out until now! But none of them can play as well as you, that’s for sure.”

Eventually Hippensteel leaves the store with a smile and a brand new red Kala ukulele for $50.

“I can play every instrument in this store. Banjos, guitars, stand up bass,” says Moser. “But the only thing I ever play now is the ukulele.”

“The Glory of the ukulele is that you can play musical style like it’s a guitar,” he says. “Except for death metal. I’ve tried. It never ‘folking’ works.”