What do Eddie Vedder, Taylor Swift and the late George Harrison have in common? They’re all fans of the ukulele. The instrument has had a renaissance of sorts in recent years and is now at the center the first-ever Uke New Jersey festival in Morristown.
Scott Ferguson is Special Concerts Committee Chair of The Folk Project, the North Jersey-based acoustic music and dance organization hosting the festival. He’s an avid ukulele fan, participating in one of New Jersey’s multiple ukulele clubs, and wants Morristown to join the ranks of Dallas, Melbourne, Paris and, of course, many cities in Hawaii, in hosting its own ukulele festival.
“I [organized this festival] to introduce the ukulele community to the folk community, and the folk community to the ukulele community,” Ferguson said. The festival will include concerts, workshops and a screening of Mighty Uke, a documentary about the broad appeal of the instrument.
MIGHTY UKE TRAILER:
This is a movie trailer for Mighty Uke, a documentary that shows viewers why so many people have chosen the ukulele to express themselves through music.
Originally known as a “machete” in the 18th century, the ukulele we know today is thought to have been created in the 1880s by Portuguese cabinet-makers who emigrated to the Kingdom of Hawai’i. From its U.S. popular culture origins in world fairs and vaudeville acts, familiarity with the instrument grew through Jazz Age music and, later, hit songs by artists like Tiny Tim (“Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” 1968).
After facing a decline in popularity, interest in the ukulele has re-surged in recent years. Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder released an entire album of songs performed on the ukulele in 2011 and Paul McCartney performed “Something,” accompanying himself on the instrument, at the 2002 Concert for George honoring Harrison (a ukulele lover) on the first anniversary of his death. Taylor Swift is also known to trade in her six-string for this four-string during her concerts and Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” is now instantly recognizable for many.
Ferguson attributes much of this rise in popularity to Jim Beloff, co-owner of Flea Market Music (a nod to the place he purchased his first ukulele on a whim). Beloff and his wife, Liz, have published more than two dozen songs and instructional books for the ukulele through Hal Leonard Corporation, the world’s largest print music publisher, making learning the instrument easier and more accessible. “We really thought that, with some effort, we could reintroduce the ukulele as this wonderful instrument that’s portable and easy to play for a new generation,” explained Beloff.
After the success of the first songbook, the Beloffs knew this wasn’t just a hobby. “My wife, who was in the movie business, decided to leave that, and I left Billboard, and we went full-time into the ukulele business in 1998,” he said.
The business became a family affair when Jim’s brother-in-law, an engineer with experience in working with wood and molds, designed an affordable, easy-to-play ukulele called the “Fluke.” Now, more than half a million songbook sales and 50,000 ukuleles later, the family is a well-established part of the expanding “uke” community.
Tony Coleman, Canadian Director of Mighty Uke, has traveled around the world researching this community — one that he himself is a part of. Coleman believes there’s a pattern with ukulele fans that he feels is unique. “[The ukulele] takes away [people’s] inhibitions. People will play together in a way that they won’t with any other instrument,” he said, conjecturing that its user-friendliness may be a factor. “It’s really a humble instrument at its heart.”
Whatever the reason for ukulele fandom may be, Ferguson, Beloff and Coleman are happy share it with the Garden State and hope the festival sparks even more interest — both in the music itself and in playing the instrument with other members of the ukulele community.
“Part of our salvation will be in making music together. Making music together is a way for us to overcome our differences,” said Coleman. “I think the ukulele is kind of the easiest way to get music in everyone’s hands.”
The Uke New Jersey festival is Aug. 30 and 31 at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship Hall and will feature performances by Jim and Liz Beloff, Victoria Vox, James Hill and Anne Davison and Celtic Spirit.