TRAVERSE CITY — Rachel Jones learned to play the ukulele from a book but didn’t perform for an audience until attending the Halifax International Busker Festival three weeks ago.
“I did my first busking and I have my first Looney in my pocket,” said Jones, referring to the Canadian one dollar coin, which bears images of the common loon.
The four-stringed instrument that once was considered a novelty has enjoyed a resurgence of late, thanks in part to its affordabil-
ity and portability, and in part to Internet and YouTube videos of virtuoso uke musicians like Jake Shimabukuro.
Now there are ukulele enthusiasts and clubs the world over. The latest: The Traverse City Uke Group.
The group met and jammed for the first time Aug. 21, organized by Jones and friend and roommate Laura Nardon, both of Traverse City. About eight friends and uke players gathered at the Grand Traverse Veterans Memorial Park on the grounds of the Grand Traverse Commons, where they gave an impromptu concert for an extended family picnicking at the nearby pavilion.
“I just came out for a barbecue for my grandma’s 96th birthday,” said Josh Rothwell, of Kingsley, who sat on the grass with his niece Sadie Young, 1, to listen. “It’s like a bonus for us.”
Jones said she got the idea to start the group after attending a uke workshop at a recent musical festival.
“They said their goal is to have a club within a 30-mile radius of every city,” said Jones, who began playing the uke two or three years ago while on a vacation to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore with her partner, who brought along his instrument. “We’re trying to do it monthly, but it just depends on who shows up and what they want to see.”
Shaun Anchak saw the announcement at a coffee shop and arrived in a uke-patterned shirt with several instruments from his collection, which includes a 100-year-old vintage uke.
“Ukulele is all the rage right now,” said Anchak, who plays in a Benzie County-based uke band called Saldaje. “I’m here because I want to start a uke festival,” like the Milwaukee Ukulele Festival.
As the TC group’s most experienced player, he noodled on tunes like “Clementine,” “This Land is Your Land” and the popular uke standard, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” while others stuck to the melody or provided rhythm.
“It’s wonderful,” Anchak said, after the first few tunes. “I’ve dreamed of days like this.”
Former trumpet player Sue Green is learning to play the bass uke and joined the group for practice.
“I might only play one note,” joked Green, a former trumpet player who wrote the unfamiliar bass clef on her wrist as a “cheat sheet.”
Zamar Guitar sells about 50 ukuleles every summer, owner Dave Eickenroth said last year. The soprano, concert, tenor and baritone instruments come in many shapes and sizes and can sell for anywhere from $69.95 to $1,000.
Julie DiFranco, who sings twice a week with the Appalachian music-themed Country Choir at the Commons, came to the uke jam to add “vocal support.” She borrowed Nardon’s “banjolele” to play.
“It’s strung and tuned like a uke with the head of a banjo,” said Nardon, who played guitar before turning to it’s smaller cousin.
The ukulele is a descendant of the guitar, having been brought to Hawaii in the 1870s by Portuguese immigrants in the form of a little four-string Madeiran guitar, according to historian John King. It was first documented on the mainland at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, where it was used by a quartet of Hawaiian singers at the Kïlauea Cyclorama exhibit.
Now the instrument is mainstream enough to be featured at New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
Jones, who led performances of “Happy Birthday” and “Five Foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” in honor of Rothwell’s grandmother, 5-foot-2-inch Norma Rollet, of Traverse City, says the ukelele is meant to be shared.
“Isn’t this fun?” Jones asked at large, between numbers.
The group’s next jam will take place at the same location at 7 p.m. Sept. 18.