I just spent the last four days at Portland Ukefest 2008. I had an absolutely great time, and learned a lot about everything from strumming techniques to diminished chords to George Formby’s career, although now my fingertips all hurt and I never want to hear anything that goes “plink” ever again.
A few observations:
*I went into the week thinking of ukulele as something I played mostly to accompany my singing. I came out of it wanting to play much, much better. And to memorize more songs—I felt like a bit of a dope relying on sheet music as much as I do.
*I was one of the three or four youngest students there. Being one of the youngest people anywhere is pretty unusual for me these days. It was kind of fun, though. I also love being around enthusiastic people, and the older uke players, even the hobbyists, are hardcore about it.
*There is a cultural chasm between people who pronounce “ukulele” yoo-koo-lay-lee and people who pronounce it oo-koo-leh-leh, roughly corresponding to the divide between people who prefer “fun” and people who prefer “authenticity.”
*On Reed’s campus at the same time: a deaconess convention. Sadly, the two groups didn’t mingle much, aside from one lunchtime when the cafeteria was closed thanks to what we were informed was only a tiny little outbreak of Black Plague, nothing to be alarmed about. I don’t think an exchange of ’20s novelty songs for foot-washing would’ve worked out that well anyway.
*I missed, and regret missing, the first of the two faculty concerts, held the last two nights. The second was excellent: many, many excellent musicians and performers, often sitting in with each other. My favorite was probably Del Rey, who plays mostly blues-based stuff, and taught a few classes on playing by ear—here’s a clip of her playing uke. Her set included a calypso that I suspect was originally an answer record to Lord Kitchener’s “Bebop Calypso”—I really need to find out what it was! [Edited to add: it’s Young Tiger’s “Calypso Be.”]
*Although my personal highlight was getting to be one of Jim Beloff’s backup singer/dancers (!) for his ukulele version of the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” One of the other students in his “Have a Nice Uke” class (’70s songs: Seals & Crofts, Orleans, the Carpenters…) had studied choreography with Motown’s choreographer Cholly Atkins, and before we knew it we were the Pips.
*Two performers at the concert made jokes about the Sex Pistols, which I think means I’m going to have to come up with a convincing uke arrangement of one of their songs. I think I could work out a fun version of “No Feelings” loosely modeled on Bananarama’s.
*Which reminds me that, as I also found, I was one of maybe three or four people at Ukefest whose main area of musical interest is post-1970. At open-mic night, I sang the Magnetic Fields’ “The Nun’s Litany,” which got some kind comments but was in some ways a category error to perform in front of that crowd. (Also considered the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” and was happy I hadn’t done that instead when another student did an excellent “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”)
*Reed College dining hall staff: I’m sorry, but somebody needs to teach you how to cook asparagus.