I love uke, man
Reno Ukulele Festival
It’s really easy to not take the ukulele
seriously. It’s one of the easiest instruments to learn, probably second to only the tambourine, and you see them more frequently at flea market toy stands than at music stores. But the “uke” is so much more than that.
The annual Reno Ukulele Festival, held at the Nugget Casino, began as a small endeavor in 2009 has grown to be the biggest “uke fest” in the western United States.
From April 14 to April 17, each day will feature a number of events for ukulele enthusiasts of all ages and skill levels. Attendees will be able to visit a number of vendors, attend workshops and watch world-class ukulele performances.
Douglas Reynolds is the event’s founder. After playing guitar for several years, he took to the ukulele as a simple way to keep up his skills when he was not able to make time for practicing guitar. But soon after, he discovered the musical versatility of the ukulele and quickly became a fan.
“In 2005, I came across a magazine article entitled, ’Jake Shimabukuro is the Jimi Hendrix of the Ukulele,’” said Reynolds. “After hearing his music, all I could think was, ’You can do that on a ukulele?’”
For many people, the extent of their knowledge on the ukulele is limited to that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” song by the Hawaiian guy with that really long name (which is Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, if you were wondering). But this is just a snapshot of what the instrument is capable of.
While the origin of the ukulele is Hawaii, the instrument itself is modeled after instruments like the machete and the cavaquinho, which were brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants at some point in the late 1800s. Not long after, the ukulele became a quintessential element of traditional Hawaiian folk music we recognize today.
Since then, the use of the instrument has spread throughout the globe to countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan.
Over time, the playing style of the ukulele evolved from simple strums to virtuosic melodies on par with the memorable licks of guitar greats like Carlos Santana. As the capabilities of the ukulele grew, so too did the genres that it appeared in.
Today, it is not surprising to see the ukulele in reggae, folk or indie music. It has also spread into jazz, blues and country music.
At the Reno Ukulele festival, the musical diversity of the ukulele is well represented, in the workshops, open mic sessions, and of course, the performances.
Each year, Reynolds invites one musical group that does not normally use the ukulele, to incorporate the instrument into their regular set list and play at the festival. This year, the Sun Kings, a Beatles tribute band, has taken on the challenge.
The festival has become an immersive musical experience for serious and casual ukulele enthusiasts. However, the event is also well-suited for the curious local who has never touched a nylon string.
Guests can take an introductory lesson with a loaner ukulele and even watch a “ukulele-wielding” magician.
But no matter what part of the festivities you participate in, there’s one factor that remains constant: a strong sense of camaraderie.
“That is the best part of the festival,” said Reynolds. “It doesn’t matter if you’re retired or a young kid … [or] whether you can shred or only know three chords. … Everyone is friendly and welcoming and anyone can find a place here.”