NORTH ADAMS – For such a small instrument, the ukulele has had a big impact on the contemporary music scene.
The unique amusement object played by the Tiny Tim falsetto has come a long way since 19th century Portuguese immigrants introduced diminutive guitars to Hawaii to the delight of King Kalakaua.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the ukulele has taken center stage in the hands of amateurs and professional millennials alike.
On Sunday 17th October, the Berkshire County Uke Fest will be the champion of the four-string phenomenon at HiLo North Adams.
Founded in 2011 by North Berkshire songwriter, performer and educator Bernice Lewis, the festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year – after a hiatus in 2020 – with an afternoon of hands-on acting and writing workshops. of uke songs followed by a song sharing concert.
Lewis is widely known as a member of the Ladies Auxiliary Ukulele Orchestra – a big name for a trio of enthusiastic uke performers. She taught songwriting at Williams College for 25 years and also runs rafting tours in the Grand Canyon and Idaho.
“This is the festival’s 10th year,” she said in a recent phone interview from Texas where she teaches songwriting at Schreiner University. “It was a way to showcase and celebrate this instrument that everyone fell in love with.”
With ongoing grants from the Northern Berkshire Cultural Council, “people were showing up, they wanted to play, listen, connect with other players,” she said. “I had artists that I wanted to present.
The ukulele has entered a kind of deep renaissance, she said. “It’s so accessible that you can be good at it or play ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with three chords and have a great time making music. It is a calming and enriching activity. You can introduce a three-year-old to the ukulele and quickly turn them into a good musician, or give it to someone in their sixties and half an hour later they are playing an instrument. And they are affordable; you can buy one for $ 50.
New Hampshire songwriter and guitarist Cozy Sheridan will make his Berkshire debut at the festival. A longtime friend of Lewis’s, they will host a workshop on songwriting for the ukulele, then share tunes in a song swap on stage.
Sheridan, who performs across the United States and directs the Moab Folk Camp in Utah, is a newcomer to the ukulele.
“I’ve been a guitarist most of my life,” she said in a phone interview as she prepared for a concert in an apple orchard in Maine. “I started the ukulele informally a few years before the pandemic. It was so ubiquitous that everyone was playing it.
“About three years ago my husband [bassist Charlie Koch] gave me a ukulele that I had always coveted made by [luthier] Wayne Henderson in Virginia. And I just fell in love with it. It was such a beautiful instrument that I just wanted to play it all the time. Something grabbed me, and I’ve been writing on the ukulele ever since.
After dealing with six strings for so many years, having four strings “was extremely liberating.” she said. “It sounds like my growing advantage right now. “
Young Northwestern writers approach the ukulele “from a whole different perspective,” Sheridan said. “Their approach is so fresh, with no limit to expectations. “
The ukulele “is the instrument of the millennium, of the pandemic,” she added.
Sheridan can’t wait to share his uke songwriting skills. “I tend to be a hands-on, experiential type of teacher, I write from a personal perspective and experience.”
Providing structural prompts and instructions helps reduce focus and is “a great way to speed up creativity.”
Veteran Albany, NY musician Ron Gordon returns to Uke Fest to lead an intermediate ukulele workshop.
“We absolutely loved what he taught last time around,” said Lewis, “really cool and accessible instrumental tracks. He’s passionate about teaching.
Williams College student Tia Birdsong will host a beginner’s workshop and perform alongside compatriot Eph Richie Jacobson.
This year, however, Lewis will miss the participation of his daughter and favorite musical collaborator, Mariah. The Brandeis University senior has an exam this weekend, Lewis said.
Previous Uke Fests at Williamstown venues, including the Clark Art Institute and the Williams Inn, have drawn some 150 attendees, Lewis noted, while the 2019 last-minute move to HiLo has drawn around 50. a few more at HiLo this time around, within safe capacity limits.
“People can’t wait to get out,” she said.