Introductions to the ukulele are often random rather than contrived, much like the ebb-and-flow history of the instrument. Ash Reiter, who fronts a band of the same name, got a uke as a gift from a friend in high school. She later acquired her own, only to have it stolen at a performance with fellow ukesters. She stopped playing, but eventually inherited another one from her grandfather. "It's one that he got while he was stationed in Hawaii for a while," Reiter says. "It's just one of the few things that we shared, and I remember he used to sing a lot of dirty songs that he learned in the war on it, like 'One-Eyed Dick.' Then when he was in the nursing home, I would play the ukulele for him."
Like all good things, the ukulele comes in different shapes and sizes: there are traditional pear-shaped ukes; pineapple-shaped ukuleles that produce a mellower sound; DIY ukuleles made from cigar boxes and plastic lollipop knobs. Godfrey designed the first baritone ukulele, and then there is the "banjulele" popularized by Englishmen George Formby during the '30s and '40s. Formby is also an inspiration for Karla Kane, vocalist and ukulele-player of the Corner Laughers, who describes its sound as "twangy" and explains that she found her 1930s banjulele at an antiques fair in San Rafael.
Berkeley-based ukulele artisan Peter Hurney specially designed Tippy Canoe, a.k.a. Michele Kappel-Stone, a ukulele. "At the time I was playing a ukulele that was all black, and he came up to me and said, 'You need an ukulele that matches your personality,'<0x2009>" explains Kappel-Stone. The two collaborated and chose imagery from a 1913 Bauhaus poster, which circles the ukulele's sound hole.
Musically, each of these Bay Area musicians advance the uke in different ways. "We put the ukulele on almost every track on the new album," explains Kane of the Corner Laughers. "But a lot of people don't even recognize it because we put a lot of cool effects on it. I have an electric ukulele, so I put it through an amplifier, and a space-echo box, and distortion."
Uni and her Ukelele write songs on the uke, whereas Ash Reiter uses the ukulele only occasionally, often as an accent or a layer within the song. Outside the Bay Area, the instrument has been used by everyone from Kate Bush to Elvis Costello to tUnE-yArDs in recent years. As Tippy Canoe says, "I love that it is such a universal instrument. Anyone can pick it up and play it." In the Bay Area, and beyond, an increasing number of bands are doing exactly that.
With Annie Bacon and her Oshen, the Spindles
Wed/20, 9 p.m., $7
647 Valencia St., SF
THE CORNER LAUGHERS
Sat/23, 7:30, $7
The Make-Out Room
3225 22nd Street
Feb. 17, 8 p.m., $10
155 Fell St., SF
TIPPY CANOE, MIKIE LEE PRASAD
With Anna Ash
March 4, 9:30 p.m. $6
1131 Polk St., SF