Thursday, August 22, 2013

Ukulele North

Ukeladies of Manchester NH

Ukelele Picnic gathering at Greeley Park hopes to become annual event
Staff Writer

NH Ukulele Picnic
WHEN: noon-4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 24 (rain date, Aug. 25).
WHERE: Greeley Park half-shell stage, 100 Concord St., Nashua.
COST: Free.
INFORMATION: UkulelePicnic.

For a tiny four-stringed instrument, it’s garnering huge amounts of attention.

The humble ukulele comes in three sizes, but all of them are manageably petite.

This weekend, hundreds of ukulele enthusiasts are expected at Greeley Park for the first NH Ukulele Picnic, an event that took a circuitous route into being.

Michael Chung, 59, lives in Nashua, but grew up in Honolulu. He began playing the Hawaiian musical staple at age 8. His son Ben, however, wasn’t interested until a few years ago. When Ben saw ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro perform at Tupelo Music Hall in 2009, that all changed.

“All this really came about when Ben saw Jake,” Chung said. “We just happened to get great seats, right in front of Jake, and right then (Ben’s) jaw just fell open. He got to talk to Jake after the show and got even more encouraged. He told me ‘this is the instrument I want to learn.’ I wouldn’t get him an instrument until I was sure he was truly committed, so for six months, he did all he could to show me he was passionate. I finally got him one in Hawaii, and he took lessons there.”

Ben, 16, a senior at Bishop Guertin, started a uke club at the high school.

“Back then, we were wondering how many people would be interested,” Chung said. “Now, there are more than 50 students, teachers and staff involved in the club.”

Ben also created a newsletter called “Uke Buzz.” Through that medium, he interviewed Shimabukuro and other uke greats. Soon, the newsletter had amassed 75-100 readers from Maine to Hawaii, Chung said. “Through that distribution list, we came across area uke clubs. It appeared to me they were all fragmented in their own communities. They had a web presence and a physical presence, but nothing tying them all together.”

That’s when Chung saw the city of Nashua’s Parks and Recreation Department’s request for event pitches. “I saw that Tom Dwayne (of Parks and Recreation) was looking for an event for the end of August in Greeley Park,” he said. “Without even knowing if I could pull anyone together, we started a Facebook page, and began getting more feedback.” Soon many statewide ukulele clubs – and even one from our neighbor to the west – were expressing interest.

“We have a performing group coming from Montpelier, Vt.: The Montpelier Ukulele Players. They certainly get the award for being the performing group that is traveling the longest distance away from Nashua,” Chung said. “Who would have thought the word would spread to northern Vermont? They said they were attracted by the community of people we’re creating with this event, that are interested in or passionate about the ukulele.”

The event is being watched from even further away, too. Chung said there are professional ukulele musicians in Hawaii that will monitor the success and turnout of the Nashua event, to evaluate New Hampshire as a viable venue for professional gigs. “They wonder what the level of interest in the instrument is around here. But social media has totally driven this event,” Chung said. “It has grown so much.”

Featured performers slated for the day include Andrea Szirbik, of Dover; Tad Dreis, of Keene; M.B. Padfield, of Manchester, performing with Southern NH Ukulele Group, of Kingston; Mike Loce, of Nashua, performing with the Ukestra; the NH Ukeladies of Manchester; the Upper Valley Ukulele Club of Hanover; and the Montpelier Ukulele Players.

Ben Chung also will perform, and will be the youngest player. His father said his lessons in Hawaii were from Shimabukuro’s former teachers. “He’s been taught the Hawaiian traditional finger-picking style,” Chung said. “You won’t see it a lot around here. There is a broad spectrum and range of styles in uke playing; it’s not just Tiny Tim style!” he laughed.

It should be noted that while most people probably known the instrument as a you-ka-lay-lee, that’s an anglicized version of a Hawaiian word. The Hawaiian pronunciation is oo-koo-ley-ley.

Chung said the growing appeal of the ukulele is simple to explain. “It’s easy to learn. It’s an accessible instrument. It’s like, iUke! It’s portable, you just strum it. You can be taught how to play a song in 5 minutes. There’s a man named Nick Acosta in Hawaii. He has one arm, a stub for a strumming arm. And he can play very nicely! (The ukulele is) fun, people have a good time.”

In addition to the many opportunities to hear live music, there will be learning-to-play-the-ukulele workshops, ukuleles on display from Indie Music and Ohana Music – plus a chance to win an Ohana ukulele – and a collaborative effort by everyone who brings an ukulele to set the New Hampshire record for the largest number of people simultaneously strumming to a song – in this case, it’s slated to be “This Land is Your Land.”

“One of the things I’ve tried to do is create a larger community of New England uke musicians to connect, network and jam,” Chung said. “To teach beginners who are interested. A lot of the clubs provide places for people to form a community and play, but we’re finding the demographic tends to skew to over 40. But we know there are lot of kids are interested, too.”

Kathleen Palmer can be reached at 594-6403 or kpalmer@nashua Also, follow her on Twitter (@Telegraph_KathP or @NHFoodandFun).

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