It was quite popular early in the last century, but today many look at the ukulele as a novelty instrument. Yet the ukulele’s helping some North Texans discover a musical side they didn’t know they had:
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On a recent Wednesday night, the banquet room of a Dallas Olive Garden is filling up with people attending a meeting of the Dallas Ukulele Headquarters. A trio starts the night off with an old favorite.
But those guys aren’t the norm. A quarter of the 20 people here have never played the ukelele before tonight. But there’s a reason they chose it over, say, the guitar or the piano.
Mark Levine founded the Dallas Ukulele Headquarters in 1998.
LEVINE: “The ukulele is a very simple, fun instrument. It’s got four strings, and as professional ukulele player Pops Bayless will tell you – four strings, four fingers, it’s a Zen thing. So it’s really, really easy.”
Levine started the group as a way to have other uke players to play with. Now, the Dallas Ukulele Headquarters meets about five times a month. Tonight’s meeting is focused on learning a couple of standards from yesteryear.
Don Aspromonte helps Levine lead the players through the song. Aspromonte started playing when he was 15. He’s now 73 – almost old enough to remember when these songs were hits.
ASPROMONTE: “I think it’s important for this particular instrument and the music that it represents to survive. You’re going to hear tonight ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ and ‘Paper Moon.’ These are songs from the 1920s, 1930s. They’re amazing songs, they’re very pleasant – anyone would enjoy them. But they’re way different from what you hear today.”
The ukulele predates those songs and Aspromonte. The instrument originated in Hawaii in the late 19th Century and is still a cornerstone of Hawaiian music. The ukulele became an instant hit stateside in the early part of the last century because it was easy to carry around and inexpensive.
But Levine blames one man – and really one song – for changing the public’s perception.
LEVINE: “When Tiny Tim got done, that whole falsetto thing had had an impact on what people thought about the instrument and in the 70s and early 80s, it kinds fell into some disfavor.”
But some current artists are pushing the ukulele beyond Tiny Tim. Jack Johnson has been known to play the instrument in concert. And Eddie Vedder released an entire album of ukulele songs this spring.
But most of the people at the Dallas Ukelele Headquarters meeting don’t care about all of that. They’re here to have fun. Levine’s goal is for each player to learn three chords by the end of this meeting. With that, he says, anyone can play hundreds of songs.
As members run through the songs, some strum along as if they’ve been doing it all their lives. Others wait for the few chords they know before skipping the trickier parts. The newbies just search for the right strings while singing. If anyone’s frustrated, they aren’t showing it.
One woman joked when she was young, her mother told her she couldn’t even play a radio. Levine says these people have always been told they can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
And maybe some of them still can’t.
But they can at least say they know how to play an instrument.