May 8 2014 12:00 AM

Q & A: Mighty Uke Day creator on Michigan's ties to the ukulele


Thursday, May 8 — This Friday and Saturday, Mighty Uke Day takes over Old Town for the fourth year. Despite its ties to Hawaii, the whimsical instrument is pretty hot in mid-Michigan. 

“In the ‘70s we could hardly give (ukuleles) away, but things are very different nowadays,” said Stan Werbin, owner of Elderly Instruments in Old Town. “Last year we sold well over 2,000, which is more than any other category of musical instrument that we carry.”

This weekend, headliners Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee will play along with other ukelele-themed acts, workshops, open mics, group strums and children’s activities. Festival creator Ben Hassenger talked about why the small instrument is so big in the capital city.

Why did you start this festival?

In 2011, I arranged a showing of the documentary “Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Music Underdog.” I figured that maybe we should have a little ukulele music to go along with the movie. (I) got some friends and other players around the state to play some songs. It was pretty low-key and I was expecting that to be the end of it, but everyone had such a great time we expanded the festival (in) 2012 and took it to another level completely last year with the appearance of James Hill, one of the top players in the world.

This year features Sarah "The Queen of Jazz Ukulele" Maisel and Hawaiian native Craig Chee headlining our Saturday night concert. (The) Friday night salute, “Michigan: The Great Uke State” (features Michigan residents) Gerald Ross, Magdalen Fossum, the Springtails and the Fabulous Heftones.

Why the ukulele?

I stumbled upon a ukulele festival in Hawaii the summer of 2009 and fell in love with the uke. There were people from around the world playing ukuleles and having the time of their lives. I thought there had to be something to this. (I) called my friend Stan Werbin of Elderly Instruments, who has been an ukulele enthusiast ever since I've know him. We got L.A.U.G.H. (the Lansing Area Ukulele Group) started, then the festival and now a variety of ukulele music programs across mid-Michigan.

The ukulele is a very accessible instrument for those who not had much experience playing music. You can get one for a relatively low price, it's portable and it’s easy to start get started playing. Most people can learn two or three chords in minutes, which will let you play thousands of songs. Just like any instrument, you need to have talent and put in years of practice to be great, but I don't know of any instrument that gives you so much enjoyment in such a short time.

Another great thing about the uke is that it's a very social instrument. Rarely do you see one person sitting alone by themselves in a corner playing, more often you'll see groups of people strumming, singing, and smiling. It brings people together from a variety of political, religious, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds that all have the aloha spirit of the ukulele in common, no matter what their other differences.

What are its Michigan ties?

Despite having more pine trees than palm trees, the uke has a more of history in Michigan than you would think.

In 1938, Andy Cummings — (known as) Hawaii’s Wandering Troubador — was nearing the end of an eight-month North American tour when he arrived in Lansing. The temperature was 5 degrees — quite cold for the islander. Walking back to his hotel after the show, he thought of the white sandy beach of Waikiki with its rolling surf, palm trees, and warm sunshine. In his room that evening, he wrote “Waikiki,” one of the classic hapa-haole songs in the history of Hawaiian music.

Elderly Instruments is one of the largest ukulele retailers in the world. Ukuleles were made for many years at the Gibson factory in Kalamazoo and are very sought-after by enthusiasts and collectors. Dave Talsma of Swartz Creek makes custom ukes for top players such as Greg Hawkes of the Cars.

What are the next steps for the festival?

Once we get through this year's festival, we start planning for the next. Each year I get input from attendees and try to improve upon the experience for everyone. The more money we can raise through the generosity of patrons and sponsor, the more music we can bring to the schools and community through our Music is the Foundation charity. I really think the opportunities are close to limitless.

Mighty Uke Day Festival
Various locations throughout Old Town
Friday, May 9-Saturday, May10
Most activities FREE, some performance $15,