Those who don’t play music tend to be intimidated by the complexity of it, like learning a foreign language or physics. But, unlike the guitar, the unassuming four-string ukulele is approachable.
“If you just want to learn something, in 5 minutes you will be playing a song, and it’s inexpensive,” said Denise Leslie, director of Rocky Mountain UkeFest, an annual event celebrating the little lute instrument.
Simplicity and the low price tag are why Leslie was drawn to it.
“My story, I love to tell because it’s important to know that music is used for healing and stress relief. I call it my therapy,” she said.
As a self-employed entrepreneur, Leslie wanted to learn to play something – anything – with strings. A music store employee suggested the ukulele.
“I picked it up and walked out with it, and 7 years later, I am addicted to it,” Leslie said. So addicted, she started selling Ohana ukuleles, teaching lessons, and launched UkeFest four years ago. After being overwhelmed at large-scale festivals in Reno, Nevada, and Port Townsend, Washington, Leslie thought Durango, being a smaller community with an interest in bluegrass and Americana, would be the appropriate setting for the festival.
The event starts with a free performance on Thursday, July 12. The UkeFest All-Star Band, consisting of the festival presenters, will play Concert in the Park at Buckley Park. While there will be jam sessions throughout the weekend, UkeFest centers more on education than performance. A variety of workshops will be held throughout the weekend. The festival is open to anyone, even those who don’t know how to spell ukulele. There is space for 75 attendees.
Leslie said the instrument originated in Portugal, and it’s an adaptation of the machete, a small, four-string guitar. Immigrants took boats over to Hawaii to work in the sugarcane fields. The king of Hawaii fell in love with the sound and made the ukulele the island’s official instrument. The ukulele made its way to the mainland in the 1900s through the World’s Fair. Due to its affordable price, the uke gained popularity during the Great Depression, when most couldn’t purchase instruments. (Leslie suggests looking up George Formby’s “When I’m Cleaning Windows.”).
Today, Leslie said many of the UkeFest attendees are over the age of 50, but she is seeing more millennials interested in the instrument. She credits pop culture, such as “America’s Got Talent,” along with musicians like Jason Mraz, and an old viral video of Jake Shimabukuro playing a rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” for the ukulele gaining popularity with the younger generation.
The Shimabukuro video is an example of how the simple instrument can be equally complex when played at an expert level. One of the presenters at UkeFest, Daniel Ward, is a classical guitar player who plays ukulele in a similar fashion. He will be teaching rhythm, Flamenco-style playing, breaking bad habits, and uke loops workshops at the festival. It is not uncommon to see ukulele players, like Ward, with long thumb and pointer fingernails on their prominent hand for picking.
Leslie said it is uncommon for ukulele players to use picks. If they do, they use felt picks for a mellow sound, and so the uke doesn’t sound like a toy guitar. There are also leather and rubber picks.
Just as diverse as the picking style and tools are the styles of music one can play with a ukulele. Other presenters are blues-heavy, pop, or other genres. Leslie said whenever she gets together to jam with fellow uke players, they’ll play everything from Doris Day’s “Tea for Two,” to Prince’s ‘Purple Rain,” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.”
Leslie said the instrument is so much more than the Tiny Tim’s strange lady voice in “Tiptoe through the Tulips.”
“I am really excited about people hearing the ukulele in a different way,” she said. “(The ukulele) can sound beautiful and complicated, as well as simple and elegant.”