Saturday, Apr 06 2013 12:00 PM

You-can-play-me ukulele

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Shoes off, feet up, Kevin Birkbeck relaxes with his ukulele.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Panama-Buena Vista music teacher Kevin Birkbeck with his tenor ukulele.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Mia LaClare, center, and her fellow Leo B. Hart classmates strum along to "Brown Eyed Girl" during ukulele class.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Kevin Birkbeck adds vocals during his ukulele class at Leo B. Hart.

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    By Felix Adamo / The Californian

    Kevin Birkbeck's ukulele class at Leo B. Hart is very popular with the students. Nick Hilderbrand is front and center with his blue ukulele!

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BY MATT MUNOZ Californian staff writer mmunoz@bakersfield.com

George Harrison's guitar famously wept. Eddie Van Halen created a six-stringed monster named Frankenstein. And every day, B.B. King's iconic Gibson "Lucille" has the blues.

But the ukulele? Nothing that dramatic or angsty for the happy-go-lucky pip-squeak in this family of mighty stringed instruments. And the best part is, you don't need to be a guitar god to make it do its giggle-inducing thing.

Related Info

UKULELE IN BAKERSFIELDUkulele! Bakersfield

6:30 to 7:30 p.m. first and third Monday of every month; The Filling Station, 1890 24th St.; ukulelebakersfield.wordpress.com or ukulelebakersfield@gmail.com

Introduction to ukulele with Medka Thompson: Rotating Saturdays; free; for schedule information, call Guitar Center, 396-3838; Guitar Center of Bakersfield, 3428 Ming Ave.

Ukulele instruction by Kevin Birkbeck: 496-9514

If you go to a Ukulele! Bakersfield meeting ...

Make sure to ask Liz Sherwyn and Julia Heatherwick for a performance by their alter-egos, Ukegottabekiddingme. The comedy duo was described as a combination of Weird Al Yankovic and the singing chickens from "The Muppet Show." Their parody of "Folsom Prison Blues," renamed "Chicken Prison Blues," is as wacky as it sounds. It has to be seen and heard to be believed.

"It opens up a whole new group of people. Talking politics is great, but when you play music, everyone's happier and calmer," Heatherwick said.

Ukulele master comes to Bakersfield

Panama-Buena Vista educator Kevin Birkbeck also organized two concerts in May by acclaimed South African bassist Bakithi Kumalo, perhaps best known for his work on Paul Simon's classic "Graceland" album.

Performances: 6 p.m. May 14 at Berkshire Elementary, 3900 Berkshire Road; free; 5:30 p.m. May 16 at Hart Elementary, 9501 Ridge Oak Drive; free.

Watch a video of Ukulele! Bakersfield

youtu.be/1gnIZXvz8Bo

Just ask Liz Sherwyn and Julia Heatherwick, who are spreading the word about the ukulele, one happy strum at a time. They've founded an informal club of fellow enthusiasts, calls Ukulele! Bakersfield, where the only essential musical skills required are a fun attitude and a little patience.

"I love music, but I am not a great musician," said Sherwyn, 30, who took up the instrument seven years ago. "I played piano, but never learned to read music well. I tried guitar, but my hands are small and weak. I've always tried to find an instrument that fit me. I found that in the ukulele."

The smallest -- and least expensive -- member of the guitar family of instruments, the ukulele has waxed and waned in popularity since its introduction to Hawaiian natives by Portuguese immigrants in the 19th century. The instrument still evokes the carefree feel of the islands, which explains its popularity early in the last century with fun-loving flappers, vaudevillians and comedians. Its everyman appeal was demonstrated during the Great Depression when down-and-outers, unable to buy their own guitars, fashioned ukuleles from anything at hand, even cigar boxes.

And now the well-traveled uke is back and bigger than ever, showing up on hit singles by the likes of Taylor Swift, not to mention a plethora of do-it-yourself YouTube clips. And, yes, some honest-to-goodness ukulele shredders have emerged during the revival, showing the rest of us what the humble instrument can do. Among them is innovator Jake Shimabukuro -- the Eric Clapton of the ukulele -- renowned for taking the instrument's four nylon strings to dizzying heights, mixing jazz and rock with the instrument's island identity.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the uke's lasting appeal is the fact that it has now taken up residence alongside traditional schoolroom instruments like the clarinet, flute and sax in Bakersfield classrooms.

Panama-Buena Vista music instructor Kevin Birkbeck has been strumming the ukulele's praises for years, after seeing for himself the instrument's impact on a live audience while at a Kiwanis convention in Los Angeles.

"Everyone laughed at me at first," said Birkbeck, 58, of reaction to his initial proposal to the school district. "It's always been looked at as a novelty."

Birkbeck's perseverance eventually prevailed. Panama-Buena Vista's ukulele program has been in place for five years, the classes have grown to more than 1,500 students, and the district has earned national recognition for its efforts.

"A student's eyes light up after two minutes," the educator said. "With a ukulele, two to three chords are all you need to create a beautiful sound.

"The ukulele has revitalized my teaching and I couldn't have done this without the support from the district and from other teachers."

Adults are learning

But as the Ukulele! Bakersfield players demonstrate, uke lessons are just as popular among adults.

Bakersfield Guitar Center employee and guitarist Medka Thompson, 30, who teaches a free beginning ukulele workshop at the store, said the lessons have been a success since they launched in October. He gets in the neighborhood of eight to 10 people at the weekend workshops and estimates the store sells between 20 and 30 ukes a month.

"A lot of younger people picked up on it after (actress/musician) Zooey Deschanel uploaded YouTube videos of herself playing and singing with a ukulele," Thompson said. "She got millions of views and things really started picking up."

Artie Niesen, 60, who owns Front Porch Music in downtown Bakersfield, also has seen a boom in sales.

"We go through about 10 or 20 a month," he said. "Mostly the starter models, but occasionally the higher-end ones, too. They kind of fell out of grace there for a while but have definitely become popular again. A customer once bought a few of the starter models to use as centerpieces for a party because they were cheaper than buying bouquets of flowers."

Niesen, who closely follows guitar manufacturing trends, said the craze has had a major impact on the industry, with prices ranging from $29 to as high as $700-plus. The most famous of all brands is the Kamaka Ukulele company of Honolulu, which has been handcrafting the instruments from solid Acacia koa wood, mahogany and rosewood since 1916.

"I do know that some of the Chinese guitar manufacturers have stopped making guitars and now only make ukuleles to keep up with the upstart companies popping up," Niesen said.

If a uke that doubles as a work of art sounds more appealing than a mass-produced Chinese instrument, Ukulele! Bakersfield regular Michael Sarr, 44, is the guy to see. He's crafted beautiful models out of everything from raw mahogany to wooden cigar boxes. He always brings extras to the group's monthly meetings and doesn't mind sharing.

"I've played guitar for a while, and I always thought it would be cool to try and build one myself," said Sarr as he displayed one of the 16-plus ukuleles of various styles he's built over the past few years. "I kind of like the earlier style, circa 1920, the heyday of the ukulele. That's what I personally shoot for. I like the woodwork."

Also eye-catching are Sarr's unique cigar box ukuleles, a nod to the makeshift instruments built during the Depression.

"It's kind of like a guitar, except you don't need that much wood," said Sarr, who noted it takes about 30 hours, give or take, to build a ukulele. "Guitar-making wood is actually getting kind of pricey nowadays. Cigar boxes a lot of the time are made of Spanish cedar, so you look for a cool one, which makes it about 90 percent aesthetics in this case. If you want something that's going to sound halfway decent or really great, you just get yourself a regular ukulele."

Part of his heritage

Jerry Caneta, for one, would love a regular ukulele -- make that any ukulele -- for his Polynesian Spice dance troupe performances. For him, the ukulele is more than a guitar; it's been a major part of his upbringing and Filipino heritage.

"When I was younger, we did our shows with all live instruments, but it's easier for dancers to use CDs now," he said.

Beyond lending authenticity to his show, Caneta, 49, said he misses the wow factor and improvisational opportunities a ukulele provides.

"You can change the lyrics of a song when you're playing a live instrument and have a lot more fun with the audience. We just haven't had any luck finding dancers who can both dance and play. I'm hoping that will change with what's happening today."

Caneta is on to something when he mentions the sheer ease of the instrument. Jim Scully, CSUB music lecturer and co-founder of Guitar Arts Academy of Bakersfield, calls the instrument a "portable boon."

"Pianists cringe every time a guitarist pulls out from a case his or her mini-orchestra," said the educator, 40. "It's amazing that something so grand can be so mobile. The uke is similar -- just on a smaller scale."

But just because they're small doesn't mean ukes aren't capable of igniting a sonic explosion. Birkbeck, the school district educator, is a virtuoso, a fact made abundantly clear during a recent interview when he performed a medley of Vivaldi's "Spring" and Mouret's "Rondeau."

"The more advanced you get, the more difficult it gets," said Birkbeck, who has recorded three self-produced CDs of ukulele music and is organizing an upcoming Bakersfield appearance by a respected South African bass ukulele performer.

Beginners welcome

But for the Ukulele! Bakersfield members, it's not about how well the player plays -- just that the player plays.

"It's easy to play and doesn't take a whole lot of training to sound like you know what you're doing or to just have fun," said Sherwyn, an arts educator at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.

"Or maybe it's more that I'm really lazy? I never really wanted to sit down and try to learn something too difficult. I gave up on the banjo because I don't want to do all the plucking stuff. The ukulele was just an unintimidating instrument."

The club formed two years ago following a jam session at the home of Heatherwick, 39, who, like Sherwyn, is a respected visual artist.

"People bring everything from saws, accordions and flutophones to a hootenanny, but I played (Sherwyn's) ukulele and loved it," Heatherwick recalled. "She said she wanted to start a group. I said, 'Let's do it.'"

Ukulele! Bakersfield has a small, fluctuating membership of five to 10 who meet monthly at the Filling Station on 24th and F streets. Newcomers don't even have to bring a ukulele, and easy-to-follow music materials are supplied.

Within a few minutes, it's not uncommon for first-timers to jam along to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," Irving Berlin's "Puttin' on the Ritz" or more recent fare by Squirrel Nut Zippers, UB40 and others.

There's also a book of Buck Owens songs developed by Central Coast ukulele instructor and educator Jim D'Ville, who paid the group a visit for a workshop last year.

"We've started to tailor Ukulele! Bakersfield to fit our community," Sherwyn said. "One thing we wanted to do is bring people who had no idea what they were doing. Maybe they got a ukulele for their birthday and don't know how to play it. We got a lot of people that just wanted to come in and learn, so we got rid of the separate beginning and advanced nights."

Sherwyn and Heatherwick are encouraged when they see the instrument's cross-generational appeal. Melissa Young, 50, and her daughter, Alissa, 15, are a case in point: The two have been regulars since their first meeting last June.

"I came home from school one day, and my mom said, 'We're going to play ukuleles,' and that was it," Alissa said. "It's been a lot of fun."

Melissa Young said she was introduced to the instrument by Sarr. Being able to share the experience with her daughter makes actively participating especially rewarding.

"We always have a great time practicing, making improvements, but I'm always distracted by baking cookies when we're at home."

"They've become 'ukuladies,'" said Heatherwick. "We're small, but mighty."

The group hopes to bring Ukulele! Bakersfield out for public performances if interest and numbers grow but, for now, Sherwyn and Heatherwick are content meeting in a relaxed atmosphere with an open invitation for new players of all ages and skill levels.

"We encourage everyone to come. It's more about fun than talent," Sherwyn said. The you-can-play-it ukulele conquers Bakersfield

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