by Siobhan McIntyre
One Wednesday evening each month, local ukulele enthu-siasts, old and young alike, gather to strum and sing along to “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian” and other popular numbers.
They do like music; they do love sing-a-longs, said Kathy A. Wenthe, director of activities at the Visiting Nurse Assisted Living Community on Lowell Street.
Wenthe said she was pleased when Julie Morse, organizer of the Boston Ukulele Society contacted her and requested the use of the facility to host the group’s monthly practice sessions. “We just happened to be the winners,” said Wenthe.
Initially, the group met in the café area of the Garage in Harvard Square, said Morse. But, with people traveling in and out and talking and shopping, the locale was less than ideal, she said.
Morse said a member of the group suggested they meet in the assisted living community and she then contacted Wenthe. “This was really lucky. It’s just been really great,” said Morse.
“Julie organized the group about a year ago and asked me to come along to be the expert,” said Davis Sweet, ukulele performer, teacher and member of the Boston Ukulele Society. “You produce one Ukulele show and suddenly you become the ukulele guy for Boston, because there is no one else.”
Sweet said, at some point in his musicianship, the ukulele simply took over from the guitar. This is not an uncommon story among ukulele players, he said. “I realized my relationship with the guitar was like a 25-year bad marriage.”
The Boston ukulele movement gained momentum after ukulele-friendly, Skybar open-mic host, Craig Robertson started up the Ukulele Noir Cabaret in 2004, said Sweet. “There’s sort of a collective consciousness about what we’re about. We were deliberately going against the ster eotype of the happy ukulele guys.”
Sweet said, although every instrument suffers as the butt of some jokes, the ukulele unfortunately became sort of a joke for the past few decades. Since the late ’60s, Tiny Tim was the only ukulele player most people could name, he said.
“There’s a lot of strange folk out there and he was one of them. Unfortunately, he was holding a ukulele,” said Sweet. “This image persisted for a few decades. That was everyone’s image of the ukulele. It’s a toy.”
Now, as a new generation of musicians comes to the fore, a generation who hasn’t heard of Tiny Tim, people are giving the ukulele a second chance, he said. Young musicians are discovering the instrument as an instrument, unhindered by preconceived notions, he said.
“When I first started playing the Ukulele in public, it was either greeted with amusement or totally ignored,” said Sweet.
Now, people listen to musicians such as folk singer Pete Kennedy of the Kennedys playing the ukulele and they think it’s cool, said Sweet. People gradually discover these cultural icons, and extremely well-respected musicians, such as George Harrison and Greg Hawkes of the Cars, playing ukuleles and think, maybe there’s something to this, he said. “It suddenly dawns” on them.
The Boston Ukulele Society is definitely group for amateurs, said Sweet. The participation varies, some people come only once or twice, some return every session, he said.
The group’s repertoire consists of some ‘50s rock and roll numbers, some group numbers such as “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” some swing numbers, and one or two solo pieces from the more practiced musicians, he said.
Sweet said the group’s set generally meshes with the tastes of their audience from the assisted living community. Some members of the audience return every time and know all the words, he said.
After a few sessions, the popular songs became apparent and one member of the group offered to standardize the collection and form a songbook, said Morse, who volunteered to lead the group after noting their request for an official organizer on Meet-up Boston.
“At first, it was really chaotic. It was papers flying all over the place,” she said.
Sometimes after the group practice, a few members will stay to discuss tips, improvise, and workshop in smaller groups. “It’s just a really fun thing for them to listen in on,” she said.
Morse said she picked up the ukulele because of her grandchildren. The ukulele is her grandnephew, Charlie’s favorite, she said. Charlie improvised and strummed in time with ukuleleists at this month’s meeting, Morse said. “I think it’s the best instrument to learn on, because it’s so easy to learn. Children can learn it really easily.”
The ukulele simultaneously possesses both versatility and ease and offers huge possibilities for creativity, she said. “The ukulele can accompany a beautiful voice or stand alone.”
Residents of the Assisted Living Community enjoy watching the musicians, whether performing, work-shopping or improvising, because the performers themselves are having fun, said Wenthe. “They seem to enjoy it and our people have fun.”