Not long ago I found myself upstairs at McKibbin’s pub selling books as part of Montreal’s Bloomsday festivities. Seated to my left was Wayne, a musician trying to establish ProSpec Strings, his new guitar accessories business; an assortment of his wares was spread out before him on his small exhibitor’s table.
“I have acoustic and electric guitar strings, as well as strings for bass guitars and ukuleles,” he would proclaim proudly to perspective customers.
“Is there a large market for ukulele strings?” I asked, like a smart-ass.
Wayne proceeded to tell me about a ukulele club in Montreal that meets bi-weekly, and then produced his phone and showed me a video he had recently shot. That shut me up but good.
I always saw the ukulele as a novelty instrument strummed by either an over-sized British man-child crooning about walking barefoot through certain Dutch flora (an act I always found more creepy than entertaining) or by someone in a grass skirt and coconut bra with a desire to return to some hovel in an unpronounceable Hawaiian village.
I immediately contacted Ukulélé Club de Montréal via Facebook and asked if I could write a story about them. They were more than accommodating and I was off to their next meeting at SCM Resto-Bar, a small establishment bracketed by exposed brick walls decorated with black and white photographs of old boxers and tucked between two restaurants on The Main.
When I arrived the joint was already beginning to fill up with a multi-generational assortment of ukulele enthusiasts unzipping their cases, setting up their stands for the sheet music, warming up, and tuning their mini-axes for that evening’s jam with a seriousness not unlike that of a symphony orchestra. (Many had little tuning devices attacked to the head of their ukes, but a few had apps on their smartphone to help with their pitch.) The sheet music (which can be downloaded to an iPad) was in tablature form with chord charts and lyrics provided to their membership by Julia, Anthony and Clairre, the club’s executives and organizers. With the exception of Benoit on his amplified Beatles-esque bass guitar (and Fab Four t-shirt to boot) and someone beating a cajón with drum brushes to keep time, most everyone was equipped with a ukulele. In what was an incredibly affable and inclusive atmosphere, anyone without and instrument was invited to sing along or play with one of the many small percussion instruments Clairre had in her bag.
Anthony, Julia and Clairre lead Ukulélé Club de Montréal in song (Photo: Andreas Kessaris)
Among the sixty-plus people in attendance were Esther, a young freelancer who was participating for the first time after finding out about the club from a friend, and Paul, a middle-aged I.T. security specialist and amateur musician who had been a member of the club for over a year, often bringing his extended family along. He was kind enough to show me a few chords on his banjo-shaped ukulele (which displays just how amicable everyone there was; most instrumentalists do not like anyone else handling their musical gear).
Soon the aforementioned trio began leading the throng from the postage stamp-sized stage in a wide variety of songs both English and French, traditional and popular including ones not really associated with the diminutive four-stringed appliance like Can’t Buy Me Love and Be My Baby, as well as Hotel California, Stuck in the Middle With You, and my favorite of the evening, Bowie’s Space Oddity.
The shows regularly feature one hour of group play, a break, and then an open mike chance for members to exhibit an individual or small ensemble piece. It was during the break that I had a chance to talk with Anthony about the club.
The slender multi-instrumentalist (he also plays the trumpet during the show) and I talked about the Ukulélé club de Montréal in the bar’s basement, where several small teams where rehearsing what they planned to showcase after the pause.
Anthony was among the first to join the club, which is the only one of its kind in Montreal (founded by Julia in 2010 and currently boasting a large membership) and soon became one of the top people. A former guitar player, he became interested in the ukulele after seeing it used in the concert tribute to George Harrison by Paul McCartney.
When choosing their songs, which are updated and adapted regularly, it is mostly trial and error: “You can play anything on the ukulele, but sometimes it doesn’t work well in a big group,” he said, adding that one of the most difficult parts is finding an agreeable key.
The club’s year will climax this August when they hold their Montréal Uke Festival (this year it runs from the 18th to the 21st) with workshops at the Casa del Popolo and a concert at La Sala Rossa, featuring a performer from Hawai’i (which makes me curious to know if the previously stated grass skirt and coconut bra will somehow be involved).
When I told Anthony about my surprise at how seriously their members took what they did he replied “most people (especially guitarists) think the ukulele is a toy,” adding “we are trying to show you can do complex songs and…very technical stuff.”
And indeed I was impressed. And if you are ever in the mood for an affordable night of entertainment, non-members are welcome.
Ukulélé club de Montréal can be found on Facebook (facebook.com/UkuleleClubDeMontreal) and meets every other Wednesday at SCM Resto-Bar (4671 St, Laurent) at 7:30 pm.