Once dismissed, ukulele has found its voices
By Alison Rooney
If you love to perform the popular music of the 1920s and 1930s, it helps to play the ukulele.
That is what, in part, brought Daria Grace and the diminutive instrument together.
“I wanted to play old jazz songs, and the baritone ukulele is closest to the guitar; it has four strings,” explains Grace, who will lead a weekly “uke” class at the Beacon Music Factory beginning Oct. 2. “I was buying old sheet music that had ukulele tablature. Its first burgeoning popularity was right after the 1915 World’s Fair, and the second wave came in the 1950s, with Hawaii’s statehood.
“There used to always be a connotation that the uke was a joke instrument, chiefly because it was cheap and easy to learn,” she says. “If you can’t afford a piano in your living room, get a ukulele!”
Not long after teaching herself to play the ukulele (she was trained on the viola as a child and learned bass at age 19 after being offered a secondhand instrument for $175), Grace joined a Hawaiian string quartet, The Moonlighters. It consisted of two ukes, an upright bass and a Hawaiian steel guitar.
Grace currently performs with The Pre-War Ponies, which she says unearths “not-quite-hits” from the 1920s to 1940s, and with the Wynotte Sisters, which specializes in three-part harmony covers. She also plays bass for Daisycutter and has toured and recorded with God Is My Co-Pilot and the sextet Melomane.
Six years ago, while living near Woodstock, Grace relocated to Beacon to be closer to New York City and because she knew a few people here, including Stephen Clair, the founder of the Beacon Music Factory. He asked her if she would teach uke.
“I had trepidations, but then thought, well, you taught yourself,” she recalls. “Three chords are all you need; some require only one finger. I can teach a 10-year-old to play a song in five minutes.” She says she finds it “rewarding once kids — and adults — start progressing. I’ve had several kids who have made me so proud.”
Her group classes are geared toward beginners, and participants should have their own instruments. They also should have basic knowledge of the instrument — three chords will do — or take a lesson or two beforehand.
Grace says there are many decent starter instruments, which come in varieties such as soprano, tenor, baritone and bass. She recommends those made by Martin or Kamaka, which is based in Hawaii and uses koa wood. (The firm employs many deaf people, after discovering, according to the company, they “can measure the thickness of sound boxes with complete accuracy. They drum their fingers on the wood and feel the vibrations.”)
Grace says her group classes are built around rock, pop and Broadway songs that are easy to learn, although some have never been arranged for the ukulele. “And I like to listen to the music that my students like — maybe I trade them a little Velvet Underground for some Billie Eilish.
“I listen to so much [different] music: early jazz to 1960s garage rock, African funk from the 1960s and 1970s — all kinds of stuff that keeps your ears open,” she says. A vinyl fan, she estimates she has 2,200 records — a constant source of new, and old, material.
The Beacon Music Factory is located at 333 Fishkill Avenue. To register for Grace’s eight-session class, which costs $175 and meets for an hour on Wednesday evenings, see beaconmusicfactory.com or call 845-765-0472.