Sit down with Vancouver Ukulele Festival founder Daphne Roubini and you end up talking about more than the instrument that artists from Joao Fernandes to Tiny Tim to Eddie Vedder have all done their best to make famous.
Over the course of an endlessly entertaining hour, the London, England–raised musician delves into everything from the healing power of music to Vancouver’s infamous reputation as an unfriendly city.
The brilliance of the Band’s classic song “The Weight” pops up out of nowhere, as does an equally enthusiastic endorsement of Anton Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony. But the best part of the interview comes around the 45-minute mark, when I confess to Roubini that I can hold my own on the bass, but attempting anything other than power chords on the guitar is an endless exercise in frustration.
Her response is to pull out her custom-made ukulele in the middle of Trees Organic Coffee on West Broadway and launch into a quick rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. Firmly of the mind that folks are better off doing than watching, she then thrusts the instrument into my hands, offers a quick bit of simple instruction, and then sits back and watches. Sure enough, within seconds I’m doing a passable job of re-creating the Stones’ 1969 classic, moving easily from C to F to D despite having anything-but-nimble fingers that look something like Jimmy Dean sausages.
My minitriumph doesn’t shock Roubini, who, in addition to having founded the Vancouver Ukulele Festival, runs Ruby’s Ukes, a downtown-Vancouver school that started out small and grassroots and is now hailed by Ukulele magazine as the biggest school outside of Hawaii. If the trained jazz singer and pianist has learned anything from years of teaching Vancouverites, it’s that achieving even a mild level of proficiency on the ukulele is nowhere as difficult as it might seem.
“I always say to people, ‘How many people in the audience play the ukulele?’ ” Roubini says. “Some people will put up their hands, and then I say, ‘Well, for those of you who don’t, I have two words to say: not yet.’ The ukulele allows the average person to be a musician. Before coming here today, I was wondering how many students we have, and it’s 340 this term.
“The school has a 70-piece orchestra made up of people who have never played the ukulele before they first came to class. They’d never played instruments before, and now they’re playing Carmen by [Georges] Bizet in five parts. The ukulele is in many ways an instrument for adults who tried music before, but found things like guitar too hard. They’ve come back and found out that with the ukulele they can access music really easily.”
The instrument first brought to Hawaii in 1879 by Portuguese immigrant Joao Fernandes has indeed been picked up by plenty of average people over the past few years, as well as some famous ones. Cabaret-pop renegade Amanda Palmer started using the ukulele for fun in concerts in the ’00s, eventually embracing it as an invaluable and highly portable songwriting tool. (Check out her 2010 EP Amanda Palmer Performs the Popular Hits of Radiohead on Her Magical Ukulele.)
Pearl Jam’s Vedder fired another early shot in what’s become a revival with the 2011 release of his Grammy-winning Ukulele Songs. Artists ranging from Beirut’s Zach Condon to the Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt to She & Him’s Zooey Deschanel have made the ukulele a go-to on-stage and in the studio. And Vancouver isn’t the only city with a yearly festival devoted to the instrument: you’ll find similar celebrations in Milwaukee, Reno, and Washington state’s Port Townsend.
Roubini has a theory about the resurgence of interest.
“In 2008 there was a recession, and it’s my theory that people really went back to being more grassroots—less about being money-oriented in their goals,” she opines. “The ukulele really fulfills that grassroots way of thinking. It’s not about consuming music, it’s about creating music. YouTube has played a big part. A lot of people have started out learning playing by watching YouTube videos.”
Roubini’s embracing of the ukulele happened almost by accident.
“In London I sang with a jazz quartet, and then when I came here I wasn’t thinking that I would do that—it wasn’t my focus,” she says. “I started playing the ukulele because I wanted my nephew to have music in his life. He was turning two. I bought a ukulele and was going to give it to him for his birthday. I asked my husband, who’s a guitarist, to teach me to play ‘Happy Birthday’, and that’s when I realized, ‘Hey, I can accompany myself on this without having to work with a pianist or a guitarist.’ And that led me to start exploring my voice in a different way.”
Since then, Roubini has released the stellar A Ukulele Album as part of the duo Ruby & Smith, and made the instrument part of her repertoire with her throwback jazz band Black Gardenia. But she seems just as proud—if not prouder—of the Vancouver Ukulele Festival.
This year’s eighth edition includes a gala concert at the Rio on Friday (March 3), featuring the duo of San Diego’s Sarah Maisel and Craig Chee, Oregon’s Aaron & Nicole Keim, Detroit’s Gerald Ross, and Vancouver’s own Timothy Tweedale. Performers will be on hand to teach a series of workshops at the Croatian Cultural Centre on Saturday and Sunday (March 4 and 5); expect tips on everything from song structure and soloing to mastering genres like bluegrass and gospel.
“The first festival was one day with 40 people, and it was just local teachers teaching,” she remembers. “I decided at the time that I would just grow it from there. I was like, ‘I’m going to imagine that it’s a garden that’s going to get bigger each year,’ and that’s what’s happened. This year, we’ve got the Croatian Cultural Centre, which is big enough that I can have five workshops on at the same time. The first year, I only had one workshop. Because we’re in a bigger space, the festival has more space to grow. What people will get is a real mixture of education and fun. And talent.”
And the best thing about that talent, Roubini adds, is—like all ukulele players—they’ve embraced the idea that the ukulele is first and foremost an instrument made for having fun.
“The thing with the ukulele is that there’s no egos,” Roubini offers. “You put a bunch of guitarists in one room and it’s just not the same.”
So even if you show up as a beginner, chances are good you’ll walk away doing a more than passable version of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. You won’t be the first on that front, but you will find yourself welcomed by players who now cut across all social and economic boundaries.
“When the school first started, it was all hipsters,” Roubini says. “Then they were more sort of hipster wannabes. Then more like grannies. Now it’s completely a mixture of everyone. Ukuleles are very mainstream now, even though they are still hip. It’s been very interesting.”
The Vancouver Ukulele Festival takes place from Friday to Sunday (March 3 to 5) at various venues. Go to the Ruby's Ukes website for full details.