Way back in 1990, a small but devoted audience sat enraptured as Paul Syphers presented a lecture on the history of the ukulele. On the walls at the Montague Bookmill, in Montague, Massachusetts, about 60 ukes were hung--the sum total of Paul's burgeoning collection. Two guest experts, Bob Cuoco and Robert Wheeler, entertained with ukulele stylings. Rounding out the event was a screening of a 1981 video documentary on the life of Roy Smeck, a.k.a. "The Wizard of the Strings." As soon as the first-ever "Uke Expo" had ended, Mr. Syphers--a dedicated historian and practitioner of the ukulele--began thinking of how to make the next one better. And bigger.

That same year, a few friends and I first took up the ukulele during a wild week of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. At the time, we thought we must be the only people in the world (except maybe for a few "old-timers" in Hawaii) who had any interest in ukuleles. As we took our ukulele hobby further and further toward absurdity, we became missionaries. We converted other friends. We learned songs. We formed a band. We called ourselves "Humuhumunukunukuapua'a"--after Hawaii's most famous fish. Suddenly we were turning up at Hawaiian steel guitar conventions, standing out as the only all-ukulele act.

It was two years ago at one of these conventions that we met Paul Syphers, forming what is destined to be remembered as "The Ukulele Dream Team". With a greater number of like minds working together and goading one another on to ever more flamboyant heights, the concept of Uke Expo grew and grew. In the meantime, we were discovering more and more pockets of uke-fever around the world and around the country. This gave us a lot of encouragement and faith in the possibility of staging something big. Another of Paul's long-dreamed-of projects was to start an official Ukulele Hall of Fame, and we ultimately decided to combine the idea of an exhibition with a membership and fund-raising drive for the "Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum."

On September 28th, six years after the first Uke Expo, "Ukulele Expo '96" opened at the Montague Bookmill, packing a punch not soon to be forgotten. Walking down the stairs into the exhibition space of this converted mill, one passed framed pieces of sheet music from the 20s and 30s, bearing images of uke-playing entertainers. At the lower landing, John Lennon greeted you with a tooth-filled smile from a large black and white poster--in his hands, a plastic ukulele sporting the signatures of the "Fab Four."

A couple of people standing in front of the poster carried on a conversation.
"The Beatles were into ukuleles?" one asked the other.
"Yessir-ee!" the second replied.
"Lennon's mom had a uke. She was a fan of George Formby, and George Harrison is a member of the George Formby Society!"
"Who the heck is George Formby? Didn't he get knocked out by Mohammed Ali back in the 70s?"

Actually, Formby was a superb British banjo-ukulele-strumming wonder, but perplexing matters such as these quickly got shoved to the back burner as you entered the great exhibition hall.

No matter which direction your eyes traveled, there were never less than several dozen ukuleles filling the view.

-- Bright colored ukes with art deco designs, kooky clowns, Hawaiian hula girls, comic-book characters and W.W.II airplanes filled the wall on your right.
-- On the wall opposite the stairs, a double line of ukuleles, all different, but each sporting a glimmering pearloid fretboard.
-- To the left, an array of ukuleles by Hawaiian makers flashed with the unique "flame" of curly koa.

Here and there, small clusters of ukes illustrated the unique touches of certain manufacturers: the bell shaped and round-bodied ukes of Lyon & Healy; the airplane bridges of Regal & Co.; tear-drop ukes by Favilla; and the line of Roy Smeck ukes by Harmony.

In all, this year's Uke Expo boasted over 200 ukuleles: on the walls, on the tables, in boxes and in the arms of ukulele enthusiasts from as far away as Hawaii, Washington, Texas and California. Ukulele and vintage instrument dealers brought ukes to sell, trade and display. Stan Werbin, the president of Elderly Instruments in Lansing, MI made the trip, bringing with him a very rare Gibson "Florentine" ukulele, a Regal resophonic uke and a Dobro resonator uke. Representatives of two New England businesses--The Fretted Instrument Workshop and Vintage Frets--also set up tables, offering ukes for sale and general ukulele info and advice. Other instrument collectors and dealers added to a wide selection of ukuleles at various prices.

From a boombox in the corner, tapes of The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, CDs of top Hawaiian ukulele artists and other ukulele selections were played throughout the day. These sounds were occasionally supplemented by a 50s-era, fold-out record player playing vintage 78 rpm records of artists such as Toots Paka's Hawaiians, Roy Smeck, Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, Johnny "the Ukulele Ace" Marvin and Frank Crumit.

The ukulele has covered a lot of miles in it's relatively short 117 year history, and made its way into some very diverse musical forms. This diversity was reflected in the strange assortment of people who came to spend all day and night talking, shopping, swapping and singing. One of the first to arrive on Friday evening was Leslie Nunes of Honolulu, the great-grandson of Manuel Nunes--who is often credited as the "inventor" of the ukulele. Other "early birds" included two women from The Stars and Stripes Ukulele Jamboree in Texas, a group of Southern Baptist seniors. Dressed up in red, white and blue outfits with matching ukes, these folks put the 'God' back in 'Godfrey'!

But fear not: the uke is not only for the straight and narrow. Close on the heels of the church ladies came Humuhumunukunukuapua'a (pronounced hu-mu-hu-mu-nu-ku-nu-ku-a-pu-a-a), the group that opened the musical program at this year's Expo. This is essentially a ukulele "bar band." They arrive at their gigs with cases of ukes and cases of beer. (They open the beer first.) Expo '96 organizer Syphers has been with the band for the past 2 years. Its line-up is: Jack Taylor-soprano ukulele; T. Walsh-soprano ukulele; Jordan Sommer-soprano ukulele; Andrew Fraser-soprano ukulele; Dave Wasser-soprano ukulele; Sue Abbotson-soprano ukulele; Andy Hartman-soprano ukulele; Steve Gottlieb-soprano ukulele; and Nick Neri--you guessed it--soprano ukulele. Despite appearances, these guys play some fairly traditional Hawaiian music, though they specialize in both Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian music.

The live musical program that capped the event was held at the nearby Montague Grange Hall. Just over 100 people turned out to hear Humuhumunukunukuapua'a, "Jumpin'" Jim Beloff, Fred Fallin, The Pinetones, and the late Tiny Tim (who was unable to perform due to illness).

The evening began with an introduction and dedication by Les Nunes, who briefly retold the history of the ukulele, including a story of how the instrument got its name. According to Les, as the Portuguese sailors played their tiny broughinas they would bounce and jump around. To the Hawaiians, watching from a distance, the sailors looked like "leaping fleas," or, in Hawaiian, "ukulele." Les finished by dedicating the evening to the memory of his great-grandfather, the inventor of the uke, Manuel Nunes.

Humuhumunukunukuapua'a kicked things off with an inspired balance of Hawaiian, non-Hawaiian and sort-of-Hawaiian tunes and rich vocal harmonies. Despite being all "haoles" ("how-lays"=non-Hawaiians), they impressed the audience by singing several songs in the original Hawaiian. Watching the Humus, one can't help thinking they're the Rockettes of the ukulele world.

"Jumpin'" Jim, from L.A., demonstrated a unique style of uking in original scores such as "Flea Market Monkey," "For the Love of Uke," and "Dog Park." His sophisticated chord progressions and charmingly clever lyrics can be enjoyed on the CD "Jim's Dog Has Fleas," available through the Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum Shop , Elderly Instruments , and other reputable outlets. Jim also has published three ukulele instruction books.

Number three on the bill, and wearing a raccoon-skin coat, Fred Fallin took the smiling audience on a musical romp through the early history of vaudeville and collegiate ukelele foolishness. Fred criss-crossed the boundaries of political correctness with songs like "My Bimbo from the Bamboo Isle" and "Hiroshima", and demonstrated a style of playing which uses chords to follow the melody of the song.

Topping off the night, the mighty Pinetones, led by supercharged ukulele player Joel Eckhaus, delivered bouncing uke rhythms and intricately orchestrated spaghetti-western swing. This four-piece string combo--featuring steel guitar, string bass, guitar and uke--brought people to their feet, and then onto their chairs!--to get a glimpse of Eckhaus using a violin bow to tease a delightful solo out of a tenor saw.

The Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum is now almost 25 members strong, and will soon publish its first newsletter. Nominations will soon be solicited for the first inductee to the Hall of Fame, and enough money was raised at the Expo to buy brass plaques. The Ukulele Diner web site--unofficial home of the Hall of Fame, Camp Uke, The Roy Smeck Society, Humuhumunukunukuapua'a and Jumping Flea Music--is gaining notoriety in the world of cyberspace. More and more people are reaching for a ukulele and finding in it a bridge to the 21st century.

And the humble ukulele smiles, happy to be only four-stringed.

Read about Uke Expo 1997

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Ukulele Hall of Fame Museum
c/o 15 Concord Ave., Cranston, RI 02910
Phone: (401) 461 - 1668