The Anti-Ukulele

Category: Ukulele
Thu, 06 Aug 2009, 13:43

Sometimes while walking through downtown to the GO station after work, I hear the dissonant tones of bagpipes amidst all the other noises of the city. Once while hearing the plaintiff drones with nary a bagpipe player in sight, I got to wondering: Is there any musical instrument more unlike the ukulele than the bagpipes?

(Just to be clear on the matter, when referring to the bagpipes, I'm referring to the Great Highland Bagpipe, rather than any of several dozen other types of sacked aerophone.)

Just compare the bagpipes with the ukulele: The latter is quiet and unassuming, while the former is loud and brash. Is it any wonder that bagpipe players have to resort to busy downtown street corners to practice?

The bagpipes produce sound from four pipes, only one of which can produce something approximating a melody. And while the ukulele doesn't have the greatest range of playable notes, it's at least not as bad as the nine note range of the bagpipes. To make matters worse, those nine notes are in the Mixolydian scale! In contrast, ukulele players can choose from whatever key they want, and can produce pleasing, consonant chords on their four strings.

The comparison doesn't end with the respective qualities of the instruments. Look at the places commonly associated with the bagpipes and ukulele: Scotland and Hawaii. Unlike Scotland, Hawaii is a lush, warm tropical paradise. Surely, the landscape associated with these places has an influence.

Or consider the social element. In many places, ukulele aficionados get together to share music. In Toronto, for example, the Corktown Ukulele Jam meets every Wednesday in an east-end bar. Can you possibly imagine the sound if 50 bagpipe players cranked up their dudelsacks in such a venue? No, that's what football stadiums are for!

If I haven't yet convinced you of the superiority of the ukulele over the bagpipes, consider the reportoire suitable for the two instruments. Unlike the bagpipes, you can play practically anything on the uke. Sure, the song "Amazing Grace" can sound awesome on the bagpipes. No argument there. But at last night's Corktown Jam, one ukerist played a medley combining "Amazing Grace" and "Movin' On Up". Sacrilege? Heck, no. Unlike the bagpipes, the ukulele allows you to be as serious or as playful as you want.

To conclude today's missive, for most of us, the ukulele is all about having fun. It's an easy instrument to play, sounds great, and is readily adaptable to many musical forms. If you haven't tried it, I urge you to give it a chance. Especially if you're one of those bagpipe players who force their highland drones on us during our afternoon commute!

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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Ukuleles Rock Corktown!

Category: Ukulele
Wed, 05 Aug 2009, 12:02

While researching a new ukulele, I came across the Corktown Ukulele Jam web site. With my brand new Kala concert uke in hand, I decided to check out the jam.

The evening Sylvana and I first went to the regular Wednesday night gathering of Toronto ukulele aficionados, it was 80's theme night. Imagine a room full of ukulele players playing "Video Killed the Radio Star", if you can. Well, it was a lot of fun, and I was hooked!

The next week was even more of a treat. The Jam chartered an old PCC streetcar. We boarded the streetcar at the Dominion on Queen and drove westward to Mitzi's Sister, where we took over the open mic night for an hour. Then it was back on the streetcar for the ride back to the Dominion. All the time on the streetcar, 44 of us were merrily strumming away on our ukes. To say the evening was a lot of fun would be a great understatement. Most of us were smiling for days afterward.

boarding the streetcar on board the streetcar on board the streetcar

With the Corktown Ukulele Jam getting more publicity on radio and TV, the Jam is now becoming more popular. What started with about 2 dozen people in January has continually grown. At the last jam I attended, there were about 75 ukuleleists crowded in the Dominion's back room.

Some might argue that we're currently experiencing the third major wave of ukulele popularity, and the Corktown Ukulele Jam is a sign of that revival. (The first wave was in the 1920's, and the second in the 1950's.) I'm not quite convinced that we're in such a major wave of interest. After all, it's still uncommon to find good quality instruments in the local music stores. If a store has any ukes at all, they're usually inexpensive starter instruments, or novelty ukes.

No, I think what we're seeing now is just a group of Toronto ukulele fans finding other like-minded individuals. With the current publicity and word of mouth, still, fewer than a hundred people out of a city of three million have found a place where they can share their love of the ukulele and have fun.

Will the Corktown Ukulele Jam grow to the point that they'll have to turn away people? I certainly hope not! Part of the charm of the Jam is the location. The Dominion on Queen is a small neighborhood bar ideally suited to the group, with an owner sympathetic to the uke. But how many more ukerists can the place handle before running afoul of zoning bylaws?

I suppose we'll just have to see what the future holds in store for the ukulele in Toronto. Personally, I look forward to jamming every Wednesday evening. Let's just hope the Corktown Jam doesn't collapse under the weight of its popularity.

Omnifariously yours, Hans

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