Lee Urban used to spend long hours looking over development plans, trying to assess how they might affect the future of Portland.
For the past several years, he’s devoted his time and energy to planning the future of the ukulele.
Urban, 71, a former planning director for the city of Portland, is the main organizer of the third annual Casco Bay UkeFest. It’s scheduled for Saturday at St. Luke’s Cathedral on State Street in Portland.
The day and night event is designed to spread the power and joy of this tiny instrument that has won over the soul of Urban, and tons of other folks, over the past decade.
There will be workshops and a concert by Stuart Fuchs, a nationally known ukulele player and teacher from New Hampshire, plus free concerts all afternoon by ukulele groups featuring players of all levels from across Maine. They include: The Merry Plinksters from Farmington, The PI Ukes from Peaks Island, The FLUKES (Falmouth Library Ukulele Society), The Ukulele Strummers of Southern Maine and Urban’s own group, the UUs – Urban Ukes.
Each group will perform its own songs, then those players will lead the audience in a sing-along, strum-along session. Urban will hand out the lyrics and music to those songs, and anyone in the crowd with the desire to sing or play a ukulele can join in.
“I promise these songs will be easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy,” said Urban. “This is intended to be very participatory.”
Which is the ukulele craze in a nutshell. The vast numbers of folks who have taken it up in the last few years include people who had mastered another instrument first, and people who always wanted to play something but thought they couldn’t. The ukulele seems to be the great equalizer, creating a fun, social atmosphere for serious players to be, maybe, less serious. But it’s also an easy enough instrument that you can play songs pretty quickly. Learning three chords can allow you to play maybe 100 songs, uke players say.
Nina Miller is a professional French horn player and a longtime member of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. She also works at the circulation desk of the Falmouth Memorial Library. When the library decided to start a ukulele club, with about eight members, Miller took up the instrument and joined. She had so much fun she took over as the group’s director. Five years later, they have 35 members and play all kinds of high-profile gigs, including the Yarmouth Clam Festival and Portland Sea Dogs games.
“It just invites social interaction, maybe more so than any other instrument, and it’s more affordable than most,” said Miller, 62, of Portland. “Plus everybody sings along. People just see a ukulele and smile.”
The smiles might come from the fact that the ukulele, compared to guitars or violins, look like toys. They also have a fun, plink-a-plink sound. And it’s fun to see such an instrument perform music we think of as profound. Miller says a crowd favorite at FLUKES performances is the “Armed Forces Medley,” which includes the various hymns of each branch of the military.
Among the FLUKES’ song list are pop tunes from the ’50s and ’60s, like “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Downtown.” They do old bouncy standards like “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby.” But at UkeFest they are also performing a piece of music from the opera “The Tales of Hoffmann” by Jacques Offenbach.
“With a uke, you can really play anything for anybody,” said Urban.
WHEN: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: St. Luke’s Cathedral, 143 State St., Portland
HOW MUCH: Free from 1:30 to 4 p.m., including performances and sing-alongs featuring five ukulele groups; $10 for morning workshops (one or both) with professional player and teacher Stuart Fuchs, and $10 suggested donation for Fuchs’ concert at noon. Donations benefit St. Luke’s Food Pantry.
WORKSHOPS AND CONCERT
9:30 a.m.: Ukulele 101, beginner workshop
10:45 a.m.: Rockabilly and classic Rock ’n’ Roll workshop, for beginners and up
Noon: Stuart Fuchs concert
1:30 p.m.: The Merry Plinksters
2 p.m.: The PI Ukes
2:30 p.m.: The FLUKES
3 p.m.: The Ukulele Strummers of Southern Maine
3:30 p.m.: The UUs
Who plays the ukulele?
Everyone, from beginners to skilled musicians. Here’s a look at some who’ll be participating in the 3rd Annual Casco Bay UkeFest Saturday.
Janis Albright, 55, South Portland
Day job: Academic adviser at University of Southern Maine
Years on the uke: About two and a half
Plays because: “I love the sense of community of the FLUKES (a group she plays in) and also at large, there are many uke groups throughout the world. We play at places in which music is therapy to people’s well being … because I can transport my uke on an airplane and because it brings me joy.”
Most fun playing: “The Yarmouth Clam Festival, riding on a float. It is quite the experience watching the crowd respond and seeing faces light up.”
Advice to would-be players: “Come listen to a rehearsal, see if you can borrow one and try it out. Know that you can learn just three chords and play over 100 songs.”
Gerard Salvo, 62, Portland
Day job: Human resources director
Years on the uke: About two, played guitar first
Plays because: “I was introduced to the uke while on vacation in Hawaii. Took some lessons at the hotel we were staying at and took off from there. Did not realize how popular it had become and how versatile the instrument is.”
Most fun playing: “I had a blast playing at my son’s wedding with a good friend and a great band, Mixology. Played the wedding standard ‘Mustang Sally’ and ‘With a Little Help From My Friends,’ Joe Cocker-style.”
Advice to would-be players: “It is a cool instrument, but you still have to practice. Take it with you wherever you go and find a group or others to play with. Find (a ukulele) that suits your personality, style and musical ear. There is a uke out there for everyone.”
Jeff Weinberger, 55, Montville
Day job: Musician, teacher and composer
Years on the uke: Seven
Plays because: While working as a guitar instructor, “a 6-year-old girl asked if I teach uke. I said yes and ran out and bought one, learned a few chords and songs, was prepared for her first lesson and have been at it ever since.”
Most fun playing: “Performing with the group I direct, Midcoast Ukes, is always fun, no matter where we play.”
Advice to would-be players: “It’s inexpensive, portable, friendly, charming and simple to play two- and three-chord songs on. It is for everyone and makes people happy.”
Michael Burd, 62, Industry
Day job: Literacy instructor in an adult education program
Years on uke: Eight, played bass first
Plays because: “I sent (a local instrument maker) a busted-up yard sale find to rescue. Upon it’s return I played my first C chord. I wept with joy.”
Most fun playing: “Every time the Merry Plinksters (a Farmington-based uke club) gather.”
Advice to would-be players: “If you are willing to confront your barriers, you will succeed.”
Fred Fowler, 64, Scarborough
Day job: Retired school principal, full-time volunteer
Years on uke: Two
Plays because: He fell off a bicycle and decided he needed to find things he could do while recovering from shoulder surgery. And he’d always wanted to play a musical instrument.
Most fun playing: Performing a sing-along with the Urban Ukes at the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center. Fowler brought a tambourine, which was played by two little girls being treated at the hospital. “They both had just huge smiles on their faces as they beat out the rhythm and sang as part of the group.”
Advice for would-be players: “You don’t have to know a thing about music to be successful. All you need is a willingness and desire to have fun with others.”
Joel Eckhaus, 66, South Portland
Day job: Instrument maker, including guitars, mandolins and ukuleles
Years on the uke: 40
Plays because: “I heard some recordings of Vaudeville legends, Ukulele Ike and Roy Smeck from the 1920s and ’30s and had to learn to play it.”
Most fun playing: Taking lessons from Roy Smeck, Vaudeville’s “Wizard of the Strings.”
Advice for would-be players: “Don’t wait. It’s pretty easy, good fun, and you can play almost anything on it.”