The ukulele, often confined to campy Hawaiian scenes in movies, has found its way into the hearts and hands of Bozeman’s talented arts community.
Marla Goodman, a graphic designer, more or less leads the Bozeman Ukulele Cabaret, an informal group of ukulele hobbyists who meet every few months and play together.
“I got my daughter a ukulele for her 17th birthday. I bought it for her as a present but I got hooked,” said Goodman. “I played the guitar and tried for awhile but then I tried the ukulele and had so much fun.”
Sometimes as many as 50 people come to the cabaret’s events to strum their ukulele’s four short strings.
“My vision was originally more of a performance, I thought we’d have a place where people could come out and play like a cabaret, with little candle-lit tables and a stage, and maybe that’s in the future,” said Goodman.
The classics like “Over the Rainbow” are fun, but the group has beginner sheets for 80s and 90s rock ballads. REO Speedwagon’s power ballad “Keep on Loving You” came through strongly on the small instruments.
In the latest meeting Thursday, 15 ukulele lovers came together outside Lindley Center. They tucked themselves in the shade of a stand of tall pines and ate delicious desserts between songs.
Mark Sinclair played a dark brown, mahogany ukulele. Sinclair, who decided to be a baker while on a trip in Europe, has a mother from Hawaii.
When Sinclair moved to Hawaii, his Aunt gave him the Martin ukulele she’d had since the 50s. Now he’s brought his baking and ukulele skills to Bozeman.
Music and food are an important part of culture just about everywhere in the world, said Sinclair. In Hawaii people bring instruments to parties and just start playing. It’s really informal, someone will start dancing and singing if they know the song.
The pastries Sinclair baked for the cabaret were savory, but so were his songs.
At the cabaret’s valentine show, Sinclair won the “saddest love song” award for his rendition of Sting’s 1979 hit song “Roxanne.”
“Not a dry eye in the house,” said Goodman.
Previous musical training is no prerequisite to joining the cabaret. The group helps rookies learn, and four basic chords will have anyone playing along with the familiar songs.
The G chord seemed to be the hardest for beginners.
“You got to think triangle,” said Mark Grenier, a construction contractor. It was difficult, but doable. The trouble was getting fingers lined up fast enough to do the song justice.
Grenier said he had played the guitar for 25 years and then found the ukulele. “I play it now because it’s fun,” he said while his fingers danced over the strings.
Tim Ferguson joined the cabaret as a beginner, and in faster parts of songs he couldn’t keep up. But Ferguson has a different relationship with the ukulele because he builds them.
After Goodman led the group in a song she wrote about a lovely bartender at the Haufbrau, Ferguson explained the unique ability of the ukulele.
“It’s cool as a builder who doesn’t play to find a group like this,” said Ferguson. “No one does this, not guitar players, not filmmakers. I’ve been to these things with 35 people, all playing the same instrument together and it happens all over the place.”
Ferguson spends hours detailing ukuleles with beautifully intricate designs using mother of pearl. He hopes to one day open an apprenticeship school where students could build their own ukuleles.
Ferguson’s instruments start around $1,200, but Goodman explained people can buy a ukulele for much less.
“Mine is a wooden Kala that cost about $250, it’s a little higher end. But you can get them for $60. They may not be as good. You need to check the intonation, but for about $100 you can get one that sounds good,” said Goodman.
It’s unclear who developed the ukulele but it’s similarity to the Portugese cavaquinho suggests an immigrant to Hawaii may have introduced it to the islands in the 1880s.
But there’s no doubt this tiny instrument will live a long life in American pop culture.
“For some reason it’s not an instrument that intimidates people,” said Goodman.
To learn more about the Bozeman Ukulele Cabaret visit bozemanukes.wordpress.com.