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Uuuuuke!

Little instrument makes a big local showing

By Joel Brown
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2010

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If you’re anywhere near the Cambridge Center for Adult Education tomorrow night, expect a strange sight and lovely sounds. Dozens of ukulele players will turn up for a free outdoor jam session, a “strum-along’’ featuring songs from 1910 to 2010. Danno Sullivan teaches “the underdog of instruments’’ at the center and leads the year-old Ukulele Union of Harvard (Massachusetts, that is). He’s also started a Ukulele Union of Boston, which boasts 50 members after just two months.

The four-stringed instrument, which comes in four sizes, “had such a bad rap all those years. . . it’s being used now for real music,’’ Sullivan said.

The uke is best known for Hawaiian music and 1920s romantic ditties, like “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.’’ It’s long been associated with icons of uncool Arthur Godfrey and Tiny Tim. But for a new generation of players, the uke is the perfect indie instrument, easy to learn and even easier to carry. It’s been gaining popularity for years, but seems especially hot now around Boston.

Ask the local indie icon who will release her EP of Radiohead covers, “Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele,’’ on July 20. (One track, “Idioteque,’’ is streaming at www.amandapalmer.net.)

People think of the uke as “a really simple, cute little instrument that isn’t to be taken too seriously, but then you can take that assumption and really turn it on its head by playing a truly emotional song on it,’’ Palmer said. “That’s something that has worked really well, to whip out this cute little instrument and play something that’s really heartbreaking.’’

Palmer bought her uke a couple of years ago for $19.95 at Daddy’s Junky Music on Mass. Ave. The same day, she learned to play Radiohead’s “Creep,’’ thinking it would be a fun, jokey way to open a benefit set at the Middle East. Instead of a one-time bit, though, it became an audience favorite and a staple of her set.

“There’s something really beautiful about the fact it’s a $20 instrument,’’ she said. “You can’t buy a $20 guitar. The uke isn’t a whole huge commitment. It’s a fantastic party instrument, a fantastic busking instrument. And who knows, the economy may have something to do with the ukulele zeitgeist.’’

The uke’s “extreme portability’’ helped the singer through a problem with a certain cloud of volcanic ash when she was on her way to some European gigs and her flight stopped in Iceland.

“It was supposed to be a 45-minute layover, and I wound up being in Iceland a day and a half while we waited for the ash cloud to pass,’’ Palmer said. “I had my uke with me, so I played a gig that night at a local bar after somebody who worked at the bar saw my Twitter feed.’’

A uke is good with airport security, too, she said: “I always have to open up the case and show them, and their reaction is usually one of extreme joy. It’s the most unthreatening instrument on the planet.’’

Sandy Sheehan of Sandy’s Music on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge says he now orders a 24-instrument case of $35 starter-level ukuleles every two or three months, where previously he might have sold one or two a month. The people buying them are old and young, male and female.

“People want to travel and be able to play, and they don’t want to take a guitar,’’ said Sheehan. “They’ll buy them for small kids who they don’t want playing daddy’s guitar.’’

“It’s almost like a haiku instrument,’’ said former Cars keyboardist Greg Hawkes, who will play Club Passim as the Greg Hawkes Ukulele Trio on July 29. “You get a lot out of a little.’’

Hawkes has been playing uke for nine years, since his wife gave him one as a Valentine’s present. He recorded an album of covers, “The Beatles Uke,’’ in 2008. Now he’s working on uke originals: “It’s a good songwriting tool. If you have a bit of inspiration, it’s right there.’’

Both he and Palmer cite the uke’s simplicity and its stripped-down sound. Palmer said it’s a way of bringing Radiohead’s songs to the fore, removed from their elegant productions. “If it sounds good on a uke, it’ll sound good in any arrangement,’’ said Hawkes.

The rebirth of the uke has been a process, but a key moment came four years ago when young uke star Jake Shimabukuro posted a YouTube video of himself playing George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’’ It’s now been viewed more than 5.5 million times. Harrison, by the way, was a uke player. On recent tours, Paul McCartney has regularly whipped out a uke to play Harrison’s “Something’’ as a tribute to his late bandmate.

After the Shimabukuro video, “people started saying, what is that little guitar?’’ said Demetrius Becrelis of the Cape Cod-based band Tripping Lily, which uses ukes a lot in its jazzy, acoustic, individual music. “It’s hard to write an angry song on it.’’

Becrelis has custom and vintage ukes costing thousands, including an early-20th century vintage instrument made by Boston’s Elias Howe Company. The band even opened the Ukehead Ukulele Shop in their West Bend Music Studios music school in West Dennis.

Ukulele also turns up on at least half the tracks on the self-titled new album by the Boston band One Happy Island (an import on London’s Oddbox Records).

“It lends itself to a very DIY aesthetic, which One Happy Island is all about,’’ says band member Brad San Martin. “It’s a very smile-inducing instrument, which I think is kind of cool if you play sad songs on the ukulele.’’

Care to try it? Sullivan’s open-air jam takes place Monday evening at 7 and welcomes uke players of all skill levels — he’ll even have extra ukes on hand for beginners.

“There’s still a thrill in seeing three or more other ukulele players in the same place,’’ Sullivan said and laughed. “It’s sort of shameful till you realize there are others like you.’’

Joel Brown can be reached at jbnbpt@gmail.com. For details on the Ukelele Union of Boston, visitwww.meetup.com/BostonUke

DANNO SULLIVAN’S UKE JAM

At: Cambridge Center for Adult Education, 42 Brattle St.,

Cambridge, tomorrow at 7 p.m. Free and open to the public. Extra ukuleles will be available. 617-547-6789. Please pre-

register at www.ccae.org