Fewer Hawaiian shirts, more rock 'n' roll

June 30, 2008|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,Sun reporter

Under an exposed air-conditioning duct that seemed barely functional stood a petite woman in fishnets, polka-dotted heels, sparkly blue eye shadow and an oh-so-short turquoise jumper.

"I'm going to rock out for a minute. 'Cause that's what I do," the blond musician declared.

And rock out she did. Her instrument of choice? The ukulele.

Uni was one of four uke players to perform yesterday at a Uke-Pop Party in Hampden. Dozens of people crammed into the quirky Atomic Pop store on Falls Road for a gathering that celebrated the tiny cousin of the guitar.

The crowd - like the performances - tilted more toward the retro and tattooed than the Hawaiian-shirted.

"The ukulele always kind of brings out the eccentrics, so you get a lot of variety in players," said Jay Sztuk, an architect from Arnold who brought his 5-year-old grandson to the show. "It allows people to be goofy because there aren't the same kind of expectations as if someone came out and played cello. You expect it to be funny."

The party marked the last stop in a 10-gig tour for Uni and for Tippy Canoe, a uke player who grew up in Harford County and lived in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood before moving to Oakland, Calif., in the early 1990s. Victoria Vox, a Wisconsin native who now lives in Baltimore, and an ensemble band called the Go-Pills that includes a ukulele player also performed.

"Interest in the ukulele is really growing," said Canoe, whose real name is Michele Kappel. "I've been enjoying folks' surprise in how many forms it takes. A lot of people think it's just Hawaiian or old stuff. But it's very versatile. You can really put your own stamp on it."

A subset of the guitar family of instruments, the ukulele is believed to have gotten its start in 1879, when Portuguese immigrants brought their own little stringed instrument to Hawaii. Before long, a couple of furniture makers on the island started crafting similar instruments, which the Hawaiians called ukuleles.

Historians with the Ukulele Hall of Fame estimate that no single person has been responsible for the sale of as many ukes as Arthur Godfrey, a television star who played the instrument in the 1950s and '60s on his radio and television shows. The instrument is also associated with the music of Don Ho and with lilting Hawaiian tunes that conjure images of grass skirts, leis and palm trees.

The performances at the Uke-Pop Party were not that kind of music.

Rather, they ranged from folksy and punk to rock and pop. Although all three female uke players perform with other musicians in their full bands and on their CD recordings, they appeared solo yesterday, focusing attention on their voices and their ukuleles.

Dressed in red and black lacy tank tops, a tulle-edged skirt and black leather boots with chunky buckles, Vox sang about road-tripping and love and skinny-dipping in Loch Raven Reservoir. "It's fictional," she told the audience with a laugh. "Because I know that is the drinking water."

Vox occasionally accented her playing by making trumpet-like noises with her mouth.

Fiercely strumming her ukulele atop a white acrylic coffee table - a necessity, she said, given her 5-foot stature - Uni played so hard that she joked she had given herself a "sweat mustache."

Her sets included a cover of "I'm So Excited" by the Pointer Sisters. And noting that her band, the Ding! String Trio!, includes a violist, a harpist and a cellist, Uni, who goes by one name, told the audience, "Strings are the new rock 'n' roll."

Like others in the crowd, Melissa Hearne expressed surprise at the sounds she heard during the show.

"It's very interesting," said the 34-year-old attorney from Washington. "It's the first time I've been to a strictly ukulele party. I had no idea that there's an entire underground ukulele movement. ... It's far more melodic than you'd expect."

Offering such exposure to new styles of music was precisely the point when Benn Ray, the owner of Atomic Books and Atomic Pop, decided to organize the Uke-Pop party with Tippy Canoe, a longtime friend.

"The response has been shocking - in a pleasant way," he said. "I think anyone who had a ukulele as a kid has some emotional and nostalgic attachment to them."

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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