Ukuleles unlimited

Tara Bradbury
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Members of the St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra (from left) Kelsey Butt, Matt Grant, Chris Parsons, Adam Reid and Jamie Skidmore. — Photo by Andrea Dunne

The Beatles weren’t known for their ukulele music, and neither were the Monkees. Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison or the Gallagher brothers of Oasis have never appeared to be particular fans of the instrument, either.

Their music, however, might be perfect for the ukulele.

Songs like “All My Loving,” “I’m a Believer,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Brown Eyed Girl” and “Wonderwall” are among those on the St. John’s Ukulele Club’s set list for a jam this evening, upstairs at Hava Java on Water Street.

“A lot of the songs will get their first test run (tonight),” said club member Adam Reid. “We chose a lot of them no because we thought they’d translate well for the ukulele — although the charts are out there, so obviously somebody thought they’d translate nicely — but mostly because their structure is fairly simple, they’re repetitive songs and it’s easy to teach people to play them. The important thing isn’t the songs themselves, but getting people to come out and creating a group that can have some fun.”

Members of the ukulele club, which has a varying number of members (although close to 80 people make up its online presence) attempt to meet about every two weeks, Reid said, and invite anyone who wants to, whether they play ukulele or not, to come. Five of the members have taken their music to the next level and have formed The St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra, which performs gigs here and there, has recorded three amateur albums and has recently released its third original music video.

The group started as trio Les Enfants Terribles, made up of Reid, Matt Grant and Jon Montes, and together they recorded an album of original tunes for The Scope’s RPM challenge four years ago. Members have changed a bit since then, a focus was put on the ukulele, and today the St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra includes Reid, Grant, Chris Parsons, Kelsey Butt and Jamie Skidmore.

Reid’s been playing the ukulele since he was in elementary school in Nova Scotia, where he says his parents were involved in the local revival of the instrument’s popularity. Butt, a native of Labrador, has won an international You Tube ukulele songwriting contest.

Skidmore is on faculty in Memorial University’s Department of English, and co-ordinates MUN’s diploma program in performance and communications media. He’s self-taught on the ukulele, having picked it up after the birth of his now-four-year-old daughter, Layla.

“I had my daughter when I was 43 and I just thought it would be nice for her to have some music in her life,” Skidmore explained, adding with a chuckle the Eric Clapton tune bearing his daughter’s name is perhaps one that doesn’t translate well to the ukulele. “I picked up the ukulele and started to play. For the first year of her life, I was on parental leave and we were living up in Labrador, my wife was doing some work up there, and I would just play all day to her.”

Skidmore is the mastermind behind the orchestra’s videos, Reid said. It’s he who comes up with the concepts for them and a vision of how they should be produced.

“One time we were having a rehearsal and Jamie comes up to us and says, ‘Look guys, I’d like to do a video and I’ve got this storyboard worked out,’” Reid explained. “I had no idea this was going to go down, but he said, ‘Here’s this 50-page storyboard I did.’ He was very loose, but he clearly had a concept in mind.”

The storyboard was for the orchestra’s song “Dead Man’s Lament,” and Skidmore’s vision centred around the four elements and the tree of life. With the help of some of Skidmore’s students, the orchestra produced the video last July.

“They didn’t really know my background or if I could possibly pull any of it off, and I didn’t, either — teaching is one thing and actually doing it is a different ball of wax, and I hadn’t done it in years and years,” Skidmore said with a laugh. “They said, ‘We’ll give it a go,’ and were happy with the first result.”

It was one of Skidmore’s first video productions in years, his last ones having been recorded on 3/4 tape and beta cam, he explained. When he took over some classes in video production at MUN and students started asking to see his work, he reckoned he’d better get something a bit more modern to show them.

The orchestra recruited some of the students to help them produce the video, as well as a subsequent one for “The Hill,” a love song written by Skidmore for his wife and recorded by the group.

The St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra recently released the old-time sideshow-themed video for “Alligator Man,” filmed at the university’s Reid Theatre over a weekend in December. The concept for the project also came from Skidmore, who said he has a particular interest in the visual language of film; how images can tell a story.

“I think that’s something very unique and special that he brings to the orchestra,” Reid said. “I think his skills help make us special and stand out a bit. He’s called on other orchestra members to come up with concepts for videos, but we haven’t had a whole lot of success with that as of yet. We’re really lucky to have him as a member.”

The orchestra’s videos are getting progressively more well-produced and elaborate, Reid said, and Skidmore credits this more to the orchestra’s and the  students’ abilities than to his concepts.

“Anybody could have a good idea, but actually executing it is impossible unless you have a good group of people working with you,” he explained.

The members of the orchestra plan on recording another album for next month’s RPM Challenge, and, later in the year, hope to take some of their best tunes from their three RPM records and get some money together to turn them into a professional record. They also hope to focus more on live shows this year.

In the meantime, they’ll be keeping their skills sharp with ukulele club meetings like tonight’s, which will take place from 6 p.m.- 7:30 p.m.

“Anyone can come, even if they don’t play the ukulele and just want to sing along,” Skidmore said.

The St. John’s Ukulele Orchestra’s videos for “Alligator Man,” “The Hill” and “Dead Man’s Lament” can be watched online at .

Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Ukulele Orchestra, The Beatles, Ukulele Club Department of English Reid Theatre

Geographic location: Water Street, Labrador, Nova Scotia

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