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Eat your heart out, Tiny Tim: Ukulele craze takes southern Maine

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Eat your heart out, Tiny Tim: Ukulele craze takes southern Maine

PORTLAND — Tiptoe through the tulips, indeed.

From Peaks Island to Falmouth, in the city's library and in a city school, greater Portland-area residents are playing ukuleles in numbers that belie the instrument's small size.

Last week, Ocean Avenue Elementary School received 25 ukuleles, thanks to a $1,000 grant from the Rusty Rocket Music Fund. Students in grades 3-5 will soon be playing the "ukes" in music classes.

Last month, Portland Public Library introduced its "Ukulele Lending Library," which allows teens to check out one of four ukuleles, each of which is packaged with a specially chosen, music-themed book.

The program was launched with a flash mob of 50 ukulele players strumming together at April's First Friday Art Walk. They included members of two new uke clubs: the Peaks Island Ukulele Group, or PIUKE, and the Falmouth Library Ukulele Ensemble, the FLUKES.

Faith York, a Peaks Island resident and lifelong guitarist who leads the Peaks Island Chorale, said she started PIUKE in February after getting the idea from a casual conversation.

"It was totally spontaneous," she said. "Then I sent out an email and said, 'Who wants to play?' I expected maybe five or six responses, but within 24 hours I had over 30."

Each Monday night, about two dozen ukuleleists meet for a jam session at St. Christopher Church on Central Avenue on Peaks Island. PIUKE is also scheduled to perform at the Peaks library branch on Tuesday, May 14, and will take part in the 2013 PeaksFest in June.

"The group is really a broad range of people," York said. "There are people in their 80s, there are others as young as 13 or 14. And there are different skill levels. Some have played guitar; most have never picked up an instrument."

PIUKE plays a range of pop music, from the Beatles to "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The group's repertoire also includes uke hits "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," popularized by the singer Tiny Tim in 1968, and "Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World," the medley made famous in 2003 by Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, and featured in movies and TV shows.

"We try to experiment with different songs," York said. "It's all about fun, but we end up making some pretty decent music."

Long associated with Hawaiian music, and later with jazz, the four-stringed ukulele declined in popularity as its larger cousin, the guitar, became an icon of modern music. But the uke started making a comeback about 10 years ago.

Now the instrument is actually hip.

"Ukes have had a hipster resurgence," said Dana Trumann, owner of Old Orchard Beach's Moose County Music & Surf, which donated the ukes for the Ukulele Lending Library. "And we thought, why not bring the instrument from the beach to the library? It is just one more migration for the funny little instrument."

Beyond Portland, the migration has spread throughout the region and the country.

In Falmouth, the FLUKES have been playing since last June, when the town library organized the group with about eight members. Today there are 29.

"The ukulele appeals to people who always wanted to play an instrument. It's easy to learn, and it's just plain fun," said Andi Jackson-Darling, director of the Falmouth Memorial Library, which also lends ukes out to card-holders.

Near Bangor, the Newport Cultural Center started hosting ukulele workshops two years ago. And at the University of Maine at Machias, the student-run Machias Ukuleles plays uke-powered rock at local venues and even an international uke festival in Nova Scotia.

York said uke groups are thriving in Boston, and she has received emails from other groups as far away as Colorado.

The craze has grown "like an infection," she said. "But I wasn't trying to follow the movement. I had no idea there was one."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.