Rise of the ukulele
Uke jams highlight growing local scene

Oren Rosenberg, left, and Charlie Higby share a dittie on their ukuleles at the Lost Dog on Sunday evening. A growing number of Durangoans are picking up the undersized instruments, and ukulele jams are meeting at the Lost Dog a couple times each month. /Photo by Stephen Eginoire

by Jen Reeder

There’s no question that Durango resident Joan Green – aka “Ukulele Joan” – is passionate about ukuleles. Green first heard ukulele music when she was recovering from lymphoma treatments and loved the “wonderful, silly music.” So in 1997 when doctors declared her “cured,” she celebrated by purchasing her first ukulele, “Ookie.”

“They didn’t say, ‘remission,’ they said, ‘cured,’” Green recalls. “I thought, ‘What’s the best way I can celebrate?’”

The celebration is continuing in Durango, as Green recently started open uke jams at the Lost Dog Bar and Lounge. All levels of musicians are welcome to come and share music and play together. Songs range from Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville” and American standards like “Home on the Range” to Hawaiian tunes.

“It’s fun. It’s not at all serious and that really attracts people,” Green says. “People do silly things with their ukes. I’ve seen ukuleles made out of cigar boxes. I just saw a video of someone who made a ukulele out of Legos – and it sounded great!”

Green had been bringing her ukulele to other jam sessions around town, including a bluegrass jam. “It’s kind of a stitch to play bluegrass ukulele because you have to really whack the little thing to be heard. It made me think, ‘Boy, I bet there’s an untapped potential for a ukulele jam.’”

Despite minimal advertising consisting of a few flyers, the first uke jam in September brought a diverse group together, including a couple that drove in from Cortez.

“Everybody who came, whether they were a beginner or an expert, I would have to classify as ‘manic’ about the uke. There was no one who was indifferent about it,” Green says.

This manic attitude toward the ukulele is part of a national spike in popularity that began several years ago, according to Dan Clausen, co-owner of Canyon Music. He attributes it partly to the economy – ukuleles can cost as little as $30 – and partly to musicians wanting to branch out. There was even an instance a few months ago when Canyon was sold out of ukuleles.

“It’s a fun little instrument,” he says. “You can’t hardly play a ukulele and not grin.”

Clausen, a guitarist, says in some respects the ukulele is easier to learn than the guitar. The smaller instrument uses nylon strings that are easier on players’ fingers.

“In playing the guitar, there’s no way around the pain – you’ve got to get your callouses built up,” Clausen says.

Guitar strings have a higher tension, and the fret spacing and neck are wider, so players’ fingers have to stretch farther. Also, the ukulele has four strings to the guitar’s six, and the tuning is different, so it is easier to make the chords, he says.

Guitarist Charlie Higby is a recent convert to the ukulele. Higby went to the first uke jam where he borrowed one of Ukulele Joan’s instruments and took to it immediately.

“I played her uke and thought, ‘This is a lot of fun.’”

So when he went to the Big Island of Hawaii soon after, he bought his first ukulele from a local fireman who was paring down his collection. Higby played a more expensive ukulele but later settled on a more affordable koa wood ukulele because it sounded better. The man told Higby that the koa uke was the one he kept next to his bed and played the most – and that the more you play a ukulele, the better it sounds.

“He made me promise I was gonna play that ukulele,” Higby says. (He does play it, and named it “Frankie.”)

Higby says anyone curious about the ukulele should give it a try.

“You can figure things out in a matter of hours,” he says. “And it really does make you smile.”

For more information about upcoming uke jams, email ukulelejoan@gmail.com or visit her blog at: http://ukealong.wordpress.com/.



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