Angry black clouds roll through the sky. Thunder growls ominously as torrents of rain pelt the hillside at El Rancho Manana Campground outside St. Cloud.
But this natural chaos is no match for 50 ukuleles. Huddled under a dripping canopy, players crammed in elbow to elbow, their song rises in unison:
I-i-i-n the wine …”
As the song ends, the clouds pass. The rain stops. The June sun shines warmly.
Arne Brogger, organizer of the annual Great Minnesota Ukulele Gathering, shrugs. “God loves ukuleles.”
God’s not the only one. The humble uke is ditching its image as a Tiny Tim toy and stepping up in the music world. Music stores that once sold two ukuleles a month now sell 50. Ukulele virtuosos garner millions of views on YouTube, and tuxedoed ukukele orchestras fill concert halls in London, Seoul and Tokyo. Closer to home, the Twin Cities area hosts hundreds of serious players and dozens of regular jam sessions.
What’s the appeal? The baby of the stringed family is cheap, portable — and fun.
“The ukulele is a worldwide craze,” said Dan Ryerson. “It’s phenomenal. I was at a three-day ukulele festival in Bangkok, and I can’t tell you how many thousands of people were there.”
He discovered the uke after 30 years as a Minneapolis lawyer. To relieve the stress of law practice, he took up guitar making.
“Lo and behold, I discovered that people actually like guitar makers,” he said. He and his wife, Carol, moved to Hawaii in 2000, where the uke is the official state instrument. That’s when the four strings snared him.
He began crafting ukes of exotic tropical hardwoods: koa, mango, milo and kamali. He sells them mainly to dealers in Asia, who sell them for as much as $4,000.
The couple left Hawaii for Sioux Falls several years ago, but Ryerson remains a board member of the Ukulele Guild of Hawaii. He’s waging a one-man battle to encourage the proper Pacific Island pronunciation of the instrument: “Oo-kulele.”
“There’s no ‘y’ in ‘ookulele,’ ” he said sternly.
As recently as five years ago, Groth Music Co. might sell two or three ukes a month in its Bloomington store, said Randy Bailey, manager of the instrument department. Now the store regularly moves 50 a month.
“It’s fun. It relieves tension. It’s entertaining,” Bailey said. Ukes also are affordable, with beginner models available from $50 to $150.
“For people who have never played an instrument, it’s less overwhelming than a guitar,” he said. “If you’re going Up North, it’s easy to throw in the car and play around the campfire.”
Evangelist of the uke
Inside the bar at El Rancho Manana, Tony Anthonisen is leading a dozen beginners through a group lesson. An affable bear of a man from Richfield, the 70-year-old is Minnesota’s premier ukulele evangelist.
Below his signature on every e-mail is the line, “You just never see someone playing a ukulele without a smile on their face!”
With the patient, cheerful air of an elementary teacher running kids through a spelling drill, he leads the group through some basic fingering and strumming exercises. “Don’t worry if you miss a note,” he said. “Nobody else is going to notice.”
Within 30 minutes, the group is strumming and singing “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and a handful of other old campfire favorites.
An accomplished bluegrass guitar player, Anthonisen decided several years ago to introduce his grandchildren to music by giving them ukuleles. He learned to play himself so he could teach them.
“Then I got hooked and they didn’t,” he said with a laugh.
His newfound devotion to the uke brought him some grief from his traditionalist bluegrass friends. Then one of them came to a uke jam where Anthonisen was leading 30 strummers through a set of bluegrass songs.
“He said, ‘You just introduced 30 people to bluegrass music,’ ” Anthonisen said. “ ‘I’ll never give you grief again.’ ”
Four strings heal the sick
Guy Lafitte, cane in one hand and uke in the other, limped to the stage for open mic night at the gathering. Settling into a chair, the St. Paul resident strummed a mournful, cowboy-flavored rendition of “Bang the Drum Slowly,” singing in a low, powerful voice.
It’s the only time he can communicate without stuttering.
Seven years ago, Lafitte had a massive stroke. Another soon followed. A professional magician, he could no longer perform. His hands had lost their dexterity; his stage patter was stilled by a terrible stutter. He fell into a deep depression, “cloistering himself from the world,” in the words of his wife, Jade Van.
Looking for something, anything, to pull him out of the pit, she began reading up on music therapy. Last year, she bought him a ukulele and persuaded him to attend the uke gathering.
“She dragged me here kicking and screaming, and it’s been nonstop ever since,” Lafitte said.
Van said her husband’s coordination has improved since he began playing. His speech is more fluent. And he’s getting his confidence back. Lafitte, a colorful character with a waxed mustache and a penchant for loud Hawaiian shirts, is a lively center of attention all through the weekend.
Said Van: “It’s fun to see him be himself again.”