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Music » Sound Stories & Interviews

Jumping Flea

Island music invades the High Desert

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It's a small guitar from a small island chain, but it's responsible for an entire musical culture that transcended continental isolation. Yes, a ukulele. From July 19-21 an entire festival dedicated to the miniature instrument with a rich history will be held at Runway Ranch in Bend.

Conventional historical thinking traces the instrument's origin to the arrival of a Portuguese boat in Honolulu in 1879. The boat was carrying immigrants from the island of Madeira to work in the sugar cane fields. Passenger Joao Fernandez celebrated their arrival by playing a Portuguese instrument called a braguinha by the docks. When the Hawaiian natives saw his quick-moving hands they dubbed the instrument "ukulele," which translates to "jumping flea." From that introduction, Hawaiian royalty became obsessed with the instrument and learned to play it themselves. King David Kalakaua even commissioned his own ukuleles—a major step in the ukulele achieving popularity on the islands.

Today, the ukulele is used for a lot more than island hula dancing. The instrument has found its way into Americana, folk and pop music. Sara Bareilles and Colbie Caillat even play the ukulele. But in Bend, the focus will be on the Hawaiian heritage of the ukulele.

The Ukulele University, as organizers call it, is much more than just a festival of performances. The artists are also there as teachers conducting workshops for the instrument. And these workshops aren't just for seasoned ukulele players; they are progressive. In fact the first day of the three-day camping festival features "Intro to Ukuleles," and there are youth classes as well. In addition, if festivalgoers want to test out their hips, on Saturday, Uke U offers a hula class (grass skirt not included). After all, a ukulele festival without hula dancing would be like scrambled eggs without tobacco sauce. You've got to have some spice.

Ukulele University

July 19, 20, 21

Runway Ranch

Tickets $40 - $70 at www.ukeu.info

About The Author

Ethan Maffey

Both a writer and a fan of vinyl records since age 5, it wasn't until nearly three decades later that Oregon Native Ethan Maffey derived a plan to marry the two passions by writing about music. From blogging on MySpace in 2007 and then Blogspot, to launching his own website, 83Music, and eventually freelancing...

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