Kelly Anderson photo Ukulele guru Peter Luongo (right) leads his 25-member, Nevada-based Luongo Ukulele Experience, a group he says he’d like to replicate on the Semiahmoo Peninsula.

Ukulele advocate seeks to create new ensemble

Peter Luongo joins forces with White Rock’s Tapestry Music and Blue Frog Studios

A free lesson to introduce Semiahmoo Peninsula ukulele enthusiasts to Peter Luongo’s Maximum Ukulele program – this Saturday (Aug. 18) – was completely booked only a day after being announced last month.

But the program for advanced or intermediate students – in which White Rock’s Tapestry Music (where ukuleles have become one of the biggest-selling instruments) partnered with Maximum Ukulele for a workshop at Blue Frog Studios – is likely only the beginning locally, Luongo told Peace Arch News.

What Luongo has in mind, he told PAN, is a Peninsula-based Lower Mainland group using the approach he originally pioneered in his work with Langley School District before his retirement in 2013, and during some 30 years of spare-time work as director of the award-winning Langley Ukulele Ensemble.

The busy, globe-trotting musician, educator and workshop leader, who bills himself as The Uke Man, wants to put together an ensemble along the same lines as his Luongo Ukulele Experience, a 25-member Nevada-based ensemble featuring musicians ranging in age from the 40s to the 80s.

The group would be about more than plunking a few chords on the popular four-stringed instrument, Luongo said. He wants to use ukulele playing as the basis of a complete journey of musical development – pitched primarily at adults “looking to fill the void” post-retirement – that includes choral singing, melody and harmony playing and music theory, he added.

“The teenager and young adult group don’t want to go to adult ukulele classes – they want to go onto YouTube to figure out how to play it,” he said, adding that he is more interested in recruiting people in the mature-student demographic who want to take ukulele playing to “the next level.”

“The purpose is to perform,” he said.

The ukulele has come a long way from the time he first started using it as a teaching tool as a young educator in the early 1980s, he said.

“It was a time when the instrument had a really bad reputation,” he recalled. “People felt it was a toy or just a joke.”

From widespread popularity as a novelty instrument in the 1920s, it had fallen into disrepute as the chosen instrument of Tiny Tim, falsetto-voiced, highly eccentric performer of the hippie era of the 1960s.

“He was actually a vaudeville historian, but what – sadly – happened is that he sensed an opportunity for his 15 minutes of fame. He was okay with being a laughing stock.”

But the fortunes of the instrument have changed, Luongo said, with the rise of such performers as the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (Over The Rainbow), whose jazz and reggae-fusion ukulele style has become hugely influential.

And the success of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble helped bring international attention to the instrument’s potential to perform a wide range of music styles, including classical, Luongo noted.

Today the instrument has become a worldwide fad, embraced by alternative bands and performers and heavily featured on television commercials, he said.

“Advertisers started to notice that it’s such a happy sound,” he said, noting that the Hawaiian style high G string tuning allows “beautiful jazz chords” to be played with relatively easy fingering.

Not that he favours the dismissive theory that the ukulele is simply an ‘easy’ alternative to the guitar – many guitar players, in fact, use four-string chords, he pointed out.

“And try playing the Flight of the Bumblebee sometime (Luongo’s ukulele groups have often performed the challenging Rimsky-Korsakov favourite). Anything played at a high level isn’t easy.”

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