If there’s an overarching message in Daphne Roubini’s upcoming A Ukulele Night to Remember show, it’s that sometimes you need to try and make the world a better place.
So it’s not by accident that the event will feature such decidedly positive standards as John Lennon’s “Imagine”, Aretha Franklin’s “Respect”, and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”. Even though a week will have passed since Remembrance Day when 50 ukulele players take the stage in East Van, the spirit of the show is very much in keeping with the day of reflection that is November 11.
“It’s going to be an evening of remembrance, peace, and harmony,” the Vancouver-based Roubini says in a phone interview with the Straight. “It’s recognizing that we need something uplifting at this point in time. There are so many wars still happening around the world, so we’d like to focus on peace.”
There are two A Ukulele Night to Remember shows, each divided into two sets, the first featuring Roubini and Andy Smith performing as the old-timey ukulele act Ruby & Smith, accompanied by Patrick Metzger on upright bass.
“It’s set up to be an evening of exploration,” Roubini says. “Ruby & Smith will be exploring, with some original compositions, what the ukulele can do in terms of jazz and folk.”
The second portion of each show will spotlight a sprawling orchestra made up of students Roubini teaches in her Ruby’s Ukes classes that run across the Lower Mainland. Conducting the group will be Vancouver’s Tim Tweedale, who also helped arrange the songs—including Led Zeppelin’s fabled “Stairway to Heaven”, the Wailin’ Jennys’ “One Voice”, and the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby”.
“The orchestra will be exploring what an ensemble of players can achieve with the ukulele,” she says. “It’s a 50-piece orchestra, and many of them started from scratch, not playing anything. They’ll be playing four parts for a really epic version of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ that they’ve been working on. It’s fun, but they are also very, very committed. They are students, but for an amateur orchestra they are doing brilliantly well.”
Roubini’s ukulele school is also doing brilliantly well; what began as a grassroots operation is now arguably the biggest outside of Hawaii. Classes run in three sessions (January, April, and September) taking place in three different locations: the Seymour Building, the Post at 750 on Hamilton Street, and Presentation House in North Vancouver. Each session spans 10 weeks, with Roubini and others teaching an average of 35 students in each of the 12 separate classes.
For those for whom the ukulele isn’t exotic enough, she also runs a Spanish-immersion ukulele class where students learn and speak en español, as well as a weekly session for those who’ve signed on for the orchestra.
The demand for her classes, Roubini says, suggests that the days of the ancient four-stringed instrument being a Tiny Tim novelty are over. Indeed, artists like Amanda Palmer and Eddie Vedder have picked up the ukulele as a go-to songwriting tool, with portability being a major selling point. Musical icons ranging from Pete Townshend to Taylor Swift have been known to bust out the ukulele on-stage and in the studio, and mega-celebrities from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Ryan Gosling are on record as devoted disciples.
“I feel like the ukulele is coming into its own now,” Roubini notes. “People don’t laugh at me anymore when I say that I’ve got a ukulele school. Now they go ‘Oh wow,’ when they used to laugh all the time. I was in a coffee shop the other day, and this kind of trendy young bearded guy looked at my ukulele and asked me ‘What’s that?’ I told him I was teaching, and he completely lost his sort of trendy, hip persona. He asked me, ‘Do you have a card? Because I’m a failed guitarist.’ That’s what the ukulele is great for. Not really failed guitarists, but people who are like, ‘I want to be part of the music community, but can’t make inroads on the guitar.’ They can on the ukulele.”
It’s not lost on Roubini that the instrument now synonymous with the sound of Hawaii is well-suited to an evening that aims to inspire. Unlike the cello, violin, French horn, and bugle, there’s something about the uke that’s naturally uplifting.
“It really can represent the human heart,” she says. “It can be poignant and it can be fun, it can be soulful and, yes, it can be mournful, but also joyful. And that, for me, is what the evening will be about. I would say it’s beautiful music made simply.”
And as wonderful as the orchestra will sound playing “Stairway to Heaven” at A Ukulele Night to Remember, what Roubini hopes everyone involved on-stage will one day reflect on is how they got from dreaming about music to performing it. There are countless ways to make the world a better place, and being able to spread joy through music is one of them.
“What I love about working with amateur musicians is that the love of the instrument hasn’t been flushed out of them the way that it has with professionals,” Roubini says with a laugh. “The main thing for me is letting the members of the orchestra know that, in some ways, the most important part is the journey towards the performance, and their evolution towards that performance. That’s really the icing.”
A Ukulele Night to Remember comes to the Cultch at 3 and 7 p.m. on Sunday (November 18).