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Arts and Culture

Maine Musicians Demonstrating the Ukulele Is Not Just for Luaus Anymore

The Falmouth Library Ukulele Society performance in 2015.
FLUKES/facebook.com
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Though some still scoff at what looks like a toy guitar, there are a growing number of ukulele enthusiasts. Sales of the small four-stringed instruments, popularized in Hawaii, have skyrocketed in recent years and playing groups are popping up across the country including Maine. The ukulele is is helping many of new players become something they never thought they could be — musicians.

Wander into music store Buckdancer's Choice in Portland on any given day, and there's a good chance you'll find someone buying a ukulele. Customer Lee Urban has been playing for fewer than two years but in that time, he's acquired 34 ukes.

"Well, I have to confess I suffer from something called UAS, which a lot of ukulele players do: Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome." says Urban.

Urban, who's 69, says he plays every morning when he wakes up, and every night before he goes to bed. In-between, he strums one to three hours a day.

"When I go to bed, I play Amazing Grace, thanking for the day," he says. "And when I wake up, I play Ode to Joy — thank God I woke up!"

The co-owner of Buckdancer's Choice, Phineas Martin, is saying his own Ode To Joy for the NUMBER of ukuleles he now sells.

"We used to sell three ukuleles per year," says Martin. "And nowadays, especially at Christmas time, there will be days where it's 'Welcome to Buckdancers. Here's your ukulele. Welcome to Buckdancers. Here's your ukulele.' Everybody through the door wanted a ukulele. And it's still hugely popular."

It's been that way for nearly a decade, says Martin. According to an annual report from the National Association of Music Merchants, between 2009 and 2014 alone, ukulele sales more than doubled to $70 million. Martin chalks up the ukulele's comeback, in part, to its simplicity.

"The strings are nylon strings, so they're not going to hurt your fingers the way a guitar will. The ukulele is much more portable. Only four strings make it so the chords aren't as daunting as guitar chords."

And that simplicity is one of the traits that drew seventy-year old Terry Allen of Portland to the uke, after unsuccessful attempts with the instruments like drums and keyboards.

"I promised myself that before I die, I want to learn how to play a musical instrument," Allen says.

If you know just three or four basic chords, you can play hundreds of songs he says. Now, he keeps a ukulele next to his recliner so it's always within arms reach.

"And my wife, Muriel, loves the fact that there's music in the house being played," says Allen. "And I'll be practicing, and she'll be singing off in the other room, and she just loves it."

And like many other uke lovers Allen has joined a ukulele group.

The Urban Ukuleles jam twice a month but there are other more serious uke combos that are also gigging in Maine.

"One, two, one, two, three four....strum beginning of My Little Love"

Nina Miller directs the FLUKES, which stands for Falmouth Library Ukulele Society. It started with eight members four years ago. Now, it's swelled to 35 and members meet weekly at the library to rehearse.

"It sparked in me a joy and love for music I haven't seen for decades," says Miller.

Miller has plenty of experience in music, she's played the French horn in the Portland Symphony for 40 years.

"This as a really sharp left turn departure for me, from a very exacting classical musician to playing something where it doesn't matter if you miss a note, or chord, or sing in wrong key or something," she says. "I mean, anything goes with the uke. It's such a relief, actually."

The FLUKES play at all kinds of gigs — from the Portland Symphony to retirement homes and memory care centers. And Miller says its often in those smaller venues that the musical experience is most meaningful.

"In some ways I feel I make more of a difference in people's lives," she says. "Now I love playing in the orchestra. But when you go somewhere and see someone respond to something you've done musically, and they haven't responded in weeks or months or years, there is nothing that comes close to that feeling."

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AND The ukulele has also awakened a love of music in FLUKES member Rick Gammon, who says he never had much music in his life, till he picked up his daughter's discarded ukulele. Now, he plays every day.

"I'm making up for all this lost time," says Gammon. "I never had music, and now I've finally got it and I'm taking advantage of it."

And while the ukulele's popularity has ebbed and flowed on the U.S. mainland over the past century, Gammon and other players believe that its here to stay. Nina Miller hopes the instrument will find an even firmer foothold in schools.

"Kids don't really grow up and play recorders by a campfire when they're adults," she says. "But if they learn the ukulele as kids, they just might do that."