The 4th annual Denver Ukefest will bring fans and artists alike to Swallow Hill Music - Reverb

This weekend: Get Uke’d up

Boulder Acoustic Society loves the uke.

Boulder Acoustic Society loves the uke.

If your memory of the ukulele is a strange man singing “Tiptoe through the tulips” in a falsetto voice (Tiny Tim), then Michael Schenkelberg — music school director at Swallow Hill — has some news for you: the instrument it is a-changin’.

“Most people under 30 don’t know who Tiny Tim is, and associate it (the ukulele) with performers like Jack Johnson and Jason Mraz, so they see the ukulele as a regular instrument,” said Schenkelberg. “Kind of like when someone plays a guitar in a band, you don’t expect them to play any particular style, it’s the same thing with the ukulele. You can use it just for strumming, like a singer-songwriter, or use it for complex soloing.”

This weekend, Schenkelberg and Swallow Hill are putting on the fourth annual Denver Ukefest, a two-day event that brings together ukulele artists and fans in a unique environment. There’s open stages and workshops abound, and for those looking to learn more about the instrument, it’s an opportunity to learn from and sit next to the guitar equivalent of Jimmy Page.

“The idea is really for it to be an immersive-type festival,” said. Schenkelberg. “There aren’t many festivals like this around the country at all where you can go and interact with the artists.”

“Starting at 10:30, the workshops start and they are taught by the artists, who are regional to national to international. All day long, when the workshops end, the artists go out and they start jamming, so the idea is to really interact and sit down with these people who are professionals. It’s not done in a strict pedagogical way, where we are going to teach you. My favorite part of the festival is you get people of all ages there — teens, kids, adults, hanging out together — and they are excited about what they learned and they go out and play together. At the end of the evening, we invite anyone who brought a ukulele along to jam at the concert.”

Ukefest was started at the behest of Aaron Keim of Boulder Acoustic Society (himself a uke player) when he met Schenkelberg after the latter moved to Denver from Chicago. Keim suggested the idea of a Denver-based ukefest, since many were cropping up around the country. The event has grown impressively since its inception, selling out the last two years.

“We did the first festival, and the ukulele was still sort of a burgeoning instrument for a lot of people; they didn’t know a lot about it,” said Schenkelberg. “Since then, we’ve sold out the last two years of Ukefest. Here at Swallow Hill, we’ve started a ukulele program so we teach ukulele lessons year-round and group classes. Back in September, we attempted the world’s largest ukulele lesson and brought over 400 ukuleles to distribute to people. We started championing it as the instrument of the people, because part of the Swallow Hill operating mission is that we think everyone can and should play music, and the ukulele is sort of the quintessential instrument to represent that.”

In keeping with the modernizing of the instrument, it’s not unusual for the artists, such as Led Kaapana, the Ooks of Hazzard, and Leftover Cuties, to play covers of pop artists like Miley Cyrus and MGMT.

“What makes our festival different is that when I look for bands and artists to book, I’m not looking for them to just play the ukulele; what I am looking for is, ‘Do I want to listen to this music?’ ” said Schenkelberg. “The ukulele is part of many bands’ focus, but it’s not always necessarily their main focus, just like when you have a guitar in a band, it’s there to bring a particular sound and feel.”

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Candace Horgan is a Denver freelance writer/photographer and regular contributor to Reverb. When not writing and shooting, she plays guitar and violin in Denver band the defCATS.