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Ukulele winning fans in the Tampa Bay area


Published:   |   Updated: June 10, 2013 at 11:28 AM

LARGO - The second half of the 20th Century was something of a dark age for the ukulele, the small stringed instrument ingrained in Hawaiian music and culture.

"In the States, people looked at it as a toy," said Steve Boisen, an organizer of the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society. "Tiny Tim came along and pretty much sealed the nail in the coffin. Ukulele was kind of like a geek instrument. ... People would scoff at it."

That's started to change in the past decade. First, a tune by the late Israel Kamakawiwo'ole - a ukulele medley of "Somewhere over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" - became a big hit and is still played at beach weddings. Then, in 2006, a YouTube video of "uke" virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro's intricate and dramatic cover of the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" went viral, getting nearly 12 million views - and it was clear people were seeing the instrument in new ways.

Shimabukuro plays St. Petersburg's Palladium Theatre Monday. Many of the Tampa Bay Ukulele society's nearly 600 members plan on going. So are countless others who have gotten curious about the ukulele, and what it can sound like in the hands of a master.

"I've gotten a lot of calls on the show," said Paul Wilborn, a spokesman for the Palladium. "I think he's captured a lot of people's attention."

This is the third time in 18 months Shimabukuro has played in Pinellas County. Two shows at the 400-seat Capitol Theatre in Clearwater sold out.

So far, about 500 tickets for the Palladium performance have been sold.

"If we hadn't closed the Capitol because of the renovation, we would have been sold out," said Katie Pedretty, a spokeswoman for Ruth Eckerd Hall, which manages the theater.

Ukulele fans say Shimabukuro has helped to elevate public perception of the instrument, especially locally.

"I think Jake definitely played a role," Boisen said. "Suddenly, a lot of people realized that the ukulele was undervalued and underappreciated."

On the other hand, the instrument may have been ripe for a renaissance. As the likes of Eddie Vedder and Jason Mraz shed more light on the instrument, people began to discover that it's accessible.

"Anybody can play one," said Marty Fouts, co-owner and instructor at the St. Pete Music Factory.

While the instrument doesn't regularly breed players with Shimabukuro-like propensity, it's easy to see why the ukulele might be winning people over. It's light. The nylon strings don't cause calluses like the steel ones on most guitars do. Those without classical training can easily learn chords and melodies through tablature, or charts that tell you which strings to hold down and where.

Locally, novice players will also tell you that the growing community of local players is as welcoming as it is large.

"There's this giant underground kind of group of people who get together and have been playing together for years," said Town 'N Country resident Julie Santelices, who started playing in the fall of 2011. "Very chill, very laid back, very kind."

Santelices said she was home recovering from a surgery when she decided to order a ukulele from Amazon.com.

"It was kind of an immediate love at first sight," she said. "It was very easy to learn."

She found out about the local ukulele society when she came across the group's Meetup.com page. Boisen set up the page in 2009, when the network of players was made up of about a dozen people.

The number of locals attracted to the instrument is evident at recurring events such as the ukulele open mic night, held every fourth Thursday at the Whistle Stop Bar and Grill in Safety Harbor, and a monthly jam session in the clubhouse of a Largo apartment complex. Both draw a crowd.

A growing roster of players is also gigging regularly throughout the area as well. Boisen and his daughter, a uke and stand-up bass duo known as The Barnkickers, regularly perform, as does "Big" Jim Allen, who plays weekend gigs across the region.

Uke enthusiasts - those who play and those who don't - are expected to come out en masse for Monday's show.

"There'll be a large group going. There always is," Boisen said. "Maybe it's just now the uke is accepted like everything else, which is kind of how it always should have been."

kbradshaw@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7999

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