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Ukulele heroes

There’s no need to tip-toe around this group’s love of Hawaii’s gift to music

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Audrey Brown (from left) Keith Fulton, Genevieve Manahan and Chris Greaves strum along with their songbooks.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Audrey Brown (from left) Keith Fulton, Genevieve Manahan and Chris Greaves strum along with their songbooks. Photo Store

Depending on what camp you fall into, Tip-Toe Thru’ the Tulips is either the best or worst chapter in the long, storied history of the ukulele. (OK, Elvis serenading Joan Blackman in Blue Hawaii runs a close second.)

After Tiny Tim warbled his way through Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips in 1968, one music critic fretted the singer’s vibrato would set sales of the instrument back "for the next quartercentury, at least."

Still, the ditty managed to crack Billboard’s Top 20 and, until Train topped the charts with Hey, Soul Sister 42 years later, remained the best-selling, uke-dominated single of all-time.

"The odd thing about Tip-Toe... is that when you hear it done right — by somebody other than Tiny Tim — it’s a really beautiful song. We don’t play it often but it is in our repertoire," says Scott Sauder, an administrator for the Ukulele Club of Winnipeg.

Back up a sec; the uku-what?

That was the reaction Amber Landry had last month, while she was busking at The Forks. Moments after the 16-year-old Glenlawn Collegiate student wrapped up her set, during which she performed contemporary tunes like David Guetta’s Titanium and Demi Lovato’s Fix a Heart on her ukulele, Landry was approached by a woman sporting a "Ukulele Club of Winnipeg" T-shirt.

"First she asked me about my instrument. Then she told me about the club and where they meet," Landry says, noting she chose the ukulele as her accompaniment for practical purposes: it was simpler to transport than her piano. "I’m not a member yet but I’d love to check them out in the future."

The Ukulele Club of Winnipeg convenes on the second Tuesday of the month at Casa Grande Pizzeria, at 984 Sargent Ave. Members gather on the upper level of the old-world, Italian ristorante at tables pulled together to form a giant U.

There isn’t a lot of time wasted on minutes. At precisely 6:30 p.m. — while most folks are still tuning up or shuffling in — a middleaged gent at the front of the room announces the group has been invited to play at Donwood Manor — a personal-care home on Henderson Highway. He asks for a show of hands to determine how many people are available on the afternoon-in-question. Once the fellow has his count, a woman a couple of seats away instructs everybody to turn to page 191 of their songbook — a 400-page tome that boasts ukulele arrangements for everything from jazz-era standards like Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue to BTO’s Takin’ Care of Business.

Seconds later, more than three-dozen attendees, ages 18 to 80, are belting out Sweet Georgia Brown.

"This is pretty much what takes place for the next three hours," Sauder says, breaking during the night’s fourth number — King of the Road — to explain the goings-on to a scribe who can’t wipe the smile off his face after leafing through the book and spotting the likes of the Turtles’ Happy Together and Martha and the Muffins’ Echo Beach.

"We try and get all the way around the table so everybody has a chance to pick a song they want the group to play," Sauder goes on. "Most people order a drink or two and at around 8:30 we break for pizza; it’s just a great way to spend an evening."

The Ukulele Club of Winnipeg, which also hosts a "Strum & Suds" at the King’s Head Pub every second Sunday, got its start in 2005. One of its founding fathers was singer/ songwriter Hal Brolund, better known in music circles as "Manitoba Hal." Back then, members took turns hosting kitchen partytype get-togethers in each other’s homes. By Year 3, the group had graduated to the Shanghai Restaurant on King Street.

"We started coming (to Casa Grande) not long after I got involved," says Sauder, mentioning his mother Jean, another of the club’s initiators, taught him to play the ukulele when he was eight years old. "I knew the owners, Frank and Tony, and I knew they had a big room upstairs. But pretty soon, we might out-grow this place, too."

At last count, the Ukulele Club of Winnipeg had 152 members listed on its Facebook site — which doesn’t take into account another 30 or so who don’t use social media. The only cost associated with joining UCW — aside from beers and ‘zah — is the $15 purchase price of the songbook, which was developed by a sister-club in Vancouver.

The person largely responsible for the Winnipeg group’s bang-on version of the evening’s next selection, Margaritaville, is Kate Ferris, a multi-instrumentalist who calls Winnipeg Beach home.

A few years ago, Ferris was approached by an executive member of the Winnipeg Folk Festival who had caught her act. He asked Ferris if she would be interested in teaching others how to play the ukulele. Ferris told him she would, providing at least 12 people signed on. When Ferris showed up for her first session, 25 were waiting, ukes in hand.

"At least half the people here tonight took my class," Ferris says, noting her next set of classes begin in September. "This is going to sound corny but some of the nicest people I’ve ever met have been through this club. There’s one woman here tonight who has severe arthritis; she says if she didn’t come here to make her fingers move, she would be a lot worse off."

Erin Shorten is a married mother of two attending her first Ukulele Club of Winnipeg get-together. She discovered the group some months ago after tripping over it on Facebook.

"I didn’t know what to expect," Shorten says, noting that she walked in without knowing a soul and she’d never been to Casa Grande. "But I like to think I’m fairly outgoing so it was no big deal."

Prior to this night, the extent of Shorten’s ukulele playing had been in front of her computer, jamming along with videos on YouTube. "I can tell you it’s a heck of a lot more fun to play with these guys," she says, showing off her instrument, which is shaped — and painted — like a kiwi. "I have two young children — 13 months and four years — so getting out of the house can be a bit of an issue. But here I am playing and singing; my husband is going to be so happy when I get home, cause I’m so happy."

Sauder says anybody interested in joining UCW can get in touch with him through Facebook. No biggie if you don’t own a ukulele, he says: Sauder always packs an extra for curious-types who show up unannounced.

"And you don’t have to be good; there are all levels of players in this room," he says, trying to coax a reporter to chime in on Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. "One of the great things is a newbie can sit beside somebody who’s been here for a while, tell him or her where they’re having trouble and get all the help they need."

And don’t lose sleep if you can’t carry a tune. "There are some people here who can’t sing for beans," Sauder says with a wink. "So what the rest of us do is sing louder."

david.sanderson@freepress.mb.ca

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