Thursday, February 1, 2007

On Ukuleles

I expected to lose my spot over the weekend, because I had plans to go away, but they were cancelled. So on Saturday night I went to the ukulele cabaret.

Somehow I have fallen in with a group of ukulele enthusiasts. Lucky me. I have been to the first annual New York ukulele festival, to several ukulele cabarets, and twice to the uke drop, a highly risible New Year’s Eve event involving the lowering of a ukulele wrapped in Christmas lights down the fa├žade of a brownstone in Greenwich Village at midnight, while a duo called Sonic Uke play Auld Lang Syne on the fire escape. It beats the hell out of Times Square.

Three things have struck me about people who play the ukulele. One is that they are partial to hats. The uke diva favors an orange baseball cap with “OM” printed on it in summer, and in inclement weather one of those huge hats with a fur brim and fur ear flaps that stick out. Or she tucks her hair under a blue crocheted skullcap. It seems to be part of the uke aesthetic. If you don’t wear a bowler, skimmer, toque, or turban, you will never be a ukulele virtuoso. They also favor leis and feather boas.

The second thing is: the bigger the guy, the tinier the instrument. At first I thought this was an optical illusion, but no. Some ukuleles are bigger than others—there are sopranos and basses and everything in between, even ukuleles shaped like pineapples—but chances are that if a man shops at Big & Tall Casual Male, he has a sopranino.

Third: they write really dirty songs. An act called Hot-Time Harve’s Roller Coaster of Kicks, out of New Jersey, do a number with the line “Lesbians don’t like my songs.” Over the weekend, I heard a nice man named Tom Harker, from Circleville, Ohio, possibly one of the most innocent places in the nation, sing an ode to a sex-education teacher by the name of Bonnie Beaver. This was at the most recent edition of the ukulele cabaret (I went because my friend K., on whose street I park, and the uke diva, my house guest, would be there, and if I sound defensive about falling in with this uke crowd, it is because I feel defensive; remember Arthur Godfrey? Don Ho?). There a gnomelike little lady proudly took the stage, in a geometric-print sweater (“She’s not gay,” murmured a woman near me in the crowd). She introduced her ukulele, saying it was fifty-nine years old. She herself was D’Yan Forest, and she was seventy-two. She launched into her own version of the Maurice Chevalier hit, “Thank Heaven for Senior Sex.” She had also reconstrued some old American favorites, including “Homo, Homo on the Range.” I don’t even want to think about the punch line to her interpretation of “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain When She Comes.” D’Yan had a snappy between-song patter that amounted to a stand-up act: she joked about having a boob job (“They were calling me One Hung Low”) as if it were routine auto maintenance (“So I had them realigned”).

She was followed by two young men, on ukulele and keyboard, who performed a tender love song that began, “I wanna fuck you.” That’s when I relinquished my barstool, even though I hadn’t quite finished my pint of stout. I should have known that it would be all downhill after the dirty-minded seventy-two-year-old lesbian.

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