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A happy little instrument: After decades of being snubbed, the diminutive ukulele is making waves

 

Members of the Ukulele Club, part of the Starkville Homeschool Music Cooperative, share a grin while performing May 4 at First Baptist Church. From left are Leah Shaw, 11, the daughter of Jennifer and Brian Hartness of Starkville and Craig Shaw of Eupora; Emily South (in back), 14, daughter of Lisa South of Mathiston; Laura Jennings, 9, whose parents are Melanie and Webb Jennings of Pheba; and Natalie Burkis, 10, daughter of Rayna and Todd Burkis of Starkville. The Cooperative has members from throughout the Golden Triangle, including Columbus and West Point, and surrounding areas.

Members of the Ukulele Club, part of the Starkville Homeschool Music Cooperative, share a grin while performing May 4 at First Baptist Church. From left are Leah Shaw, 11, the daughter of Jennifer and Brian Hartness of Starkville and Craig Shaw of Eupora; Emily South (in back), 14, daughter of Lisa South of Mathiston; Laura Jennings, 9, whose parents are Melanie and Webb Jennings of Pheba; and Natalie Burkis, 10, daughter of Rayna and Todd Burkis of Starkville. The Cooperative has members from throughout the Golden Triangle, including Columbus and West Point, and surrounding areas. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff

 

Launch Photo Gallery

 

Melanie Jennings began organizing the Ukulele Club last fall. She oversees the Homeschool Music Cooperative.

Melanie Jennings began organizing the Ukulele Club last fall. She oversees the Homeschool Music Cooperative.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

A happy group of uke players pause for a picture to commemorate their outdoor performance April 22.

A happy group of uke players pause for a picture to commemorate their outdoor performance April 22.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

The Ukulele Club was invited to play when Backstage Music in Starkville held their annual Spring Cleaning Day for area musicians April 22.

The Ukulele Club was invited to play when Backstage Music in Starkville held their annual Spring Cleaning Day for area musicians April 22. "I imagine we were a funny sight to drivers passing by on Highway 12, but it was fun!" said Melanie Jennings.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Jan Swoope

 

 

"Everybody should have and play a uke. It's so simple to carry with you and it is one instrument you can't play and not laugh!" 

 

George Harrison of The Beatles, in "Jumpin' Jim's '60s Uke-In" songbook, 1999 

 

 

 

For 13-year-old Kenna McGrew, it happened at a church event. A friend had brought along a ukulele, and Kenna came home smitten with the quirky little instrument. She saved her dimes and dollars, all her babysitting money, until, about a year ago, she walked into a music shop in Starkville to buy her very own. She's never been sorry. 

 

" ... You can play these really fierce songs and really want to scream out to the world -- and then you can also play a slow one and you feel the rhythm, and you just want to cry out your feelings because the music's so beautiful," she said. Insightful beyond her years. 

 

Kenna isn't alone in her fascination with this small cousin of the guitar. What began last fall with a few kids in the Starkville Homeschool Music Cooperative strumming together at each others' homes bloomed this past spring into a group, at full-strength, of 30 or more rehearsing weekly. Cooperative students represent not only Starkville, but Columbus, West Point, Louisville, Houston, Bruce, Pheba, even Scott County. The ukulele players have already taken their show on the road, making their public debut at Starkville's Cotton District Arts Festival in April. For kids who, for the most part, were using loaners and sharing instruments a few months ago, they've come a long way.  

 

"There were many ukuleles on Christmas lists this year!" laughed Melanie Jennings, who leads the group and oversees the music cooperative which consists of two bands, three choirs and now the club.  

 

 

 

Hot ticket 

 

Anyone who hasn't given much thought to ukuleles since TV show host Arthur Godfrey donned a Hawaiian shirt and helped spark a uke craze in the early '50s, or Tiny Tim tiptoed through tulips in his '68 novelty song, might be in for a surprise. The ukulele, once relegated to the back seat by rock's thunderous electric guitars, is reveling in a revival. Helping fuel it was native Hawaiian Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's 1993 release of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World," which ended up in the film "Meet Joe Black," in TV series like "ER," "Scrubs" and "Glee," and in commercials and at weddings everywhere. And then, in 2006, Hawaiian-born Jake Shimabukuro recorded an intricate, stirring rendition of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on a ukulele in Central Park. It exploded concepts of the instrument's potential and became one of YouTube's first viral videos. 

 

"Young Jake comes along, and suddenly the ukulele is seen as a valid instrument again," said Allen McBroom of Backstage Music in Starkville. "In the past 11 years, that one video in Central Park has been viewed over 15 million times." (McBroom and the shop have been staunch ukulele club supporters and invited the kids to perform in April when Backstage hosted its annual Spring Cleaning Day, a swap meet for area musicians.) 

 

Celebrity players like the Beatles' Harrison, Eddie Vedder, Twenty-One Pilots, the United Kingdom's former Prime Minister Tony Blair and even business magnate Warren Buffett have contributed to the ukulele's resurrection, too.  

 

To put it all in perspective, in 2016 the number of acoustic guitars sold was about 1,390,000. Ukulele sales were approximately 1,202,000, McBroom said. "The acoustic guitar number is up a bit from 15 years ago, and the ukulele is up almost by about a million sales from 15 years ago," he remarked. "That's a huge surge for an instrument previously held in disdain by most serious musicians. ... The growth of ukulele sales in the past five years has outpaced growth of all guitar types combined." 

 

 

 

Everyman's instrument 

 

Lightweight, four strings, accessible and affordable, ukuleles are the perfect instrument for self-accompaniment, said Jennings. Models at Backstage, for instance, generally range from $43 to about $200. (Custom ukes, of course, can cost thousands.) 

 

"It's not really hard to learn to play," said 10-year-old Natalie Burkis of Starkville, a club player who got the instrument at Christmas. "It was a present to my whole family, so we all share it." 

 

Natalie's mother, Rayna Burkis, thinks the club is a great idea. With a big family that's into sports, she welcomes the chance to inject more music into her children's lives. 

 

"I jump on any opportunity I can, and they've loved it," she said. "Music is something I want my kids to learn, and this instrument is really neat; it sounds really pretty." Sweet, whispery and whimsical have all been used to describe the ukulele's unique sound that is forever associated with the music of Hawaii. Its origins actually trace back to the Portuguese machete, a small guitar-like instrument introduced to the island by immigrants in the late 1800s.  

 

Some Ukulele Club players may aspire to play like Shimabukuro one day, but for now they're focused on a simpler repertoire of folk songs, hymns, contemporary worship songs and favorites like "You Are My Sunshine," "Amazing Grace" and "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." During the summer hiatus, they'll practice tunes Jennings gave them to work on, then resume weekly rehearsals in August and perform them together. Jennings has already been approached by other groups interested in joining this flowering ukulele revolution in the Golden Triangle.  

 

"We've all just fallen in love with this happy little instrument," she smiled. 

 

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

 

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