Ukelele Madness

"It turned into a horrible -- well, not horrible ... let's call it a beautiful train wreck of sound."

by Alexander Gelfand
June 2008

TIKI-GOD party lights, leis, a handful of warm poi, maybe a '30s-era frat boy in a straw hat and raccoon coat -- these are the kinds of things we tend to associate with the ukulele. But as the documentary Rock That Uke (Bald Guy With a Dent in His Head Productions) demonstrates, this tiny guitar-like instrument is nothing if not versatile.

Rock That Uke -- released in 2003, but still being screened in cafes, libraries, and ukulele conventions across the country -- features punk ukulele, folk ukulele, jazz ukulele, and a lot more besides. There's Casey Korder, a Las Vegas schoolteacher who performs original material on a sky-blue Konablaster, an electric uke that once sported a live .30-06 round under its bridge. (Safety concerns prompted a recall, and the casing is now powderless.) Did I mention that Korder performs -- and apparently grants interviews -- in a cow suit? Well, he does.

There's Carmaig de Forest, a veteran punk uker who has opened for the Ramones, Wall of Voodoo, and Dexys Midnight Runners, and whose poignant "But She Doesn't Fuck Me" nearly brought tears to my eyes.

And there's my old friend Bill Whitmer, a.k.a. Williwaw, who first introduced me to the wild and woolly world of progressive-uke music 15 years ago.

Bill and I met as graduate students in the School of Music at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Bill had a background in physics and ukulele -- he had taken up the instrument when he realized just how much it annoyed his older brother -- and he was far too intelligent to last long in academic musicology.

Fortunately, he didn't have to. After leaving the musicology program at U of I, he picked up a Ph.D. from the Parmly Hearing Institute at Loyola University. He then spent a year running behavioral experiments on chinchillas (apparently, the little critters have freakishly good powers of pitch perception) before landing a job doing basic research on hearing impairment.

I find this ironic since Bill's work as a ukulelist is not exactly conducive to good ear health. While he does sometimes play unplugged, most of Bill's output as Williwaw is amplified -- heavily amplified.

"I was dealing in quadraphonic sound for quite a while," Bill recently told me. He began his Williwaw career on electric uke, playing Van Halen's "Intruder" and some ditties he'd worked out for his home answering machine at clubs around Champaign. He soon began routing multiple signals from multiple amps -- first two, then four -- to multiple effects boxes. At his peak, he was up to 24 such boxes -- enough to completely mask the native sound of his instrument and evoke everything from heavy metal to breaking glass.

He's since pared back a bit on the gear, but he's no less adventurous.

Back in 2001, Bill performed in The Chicago Sound, a musical free-for-all co-organized by Weasel Walter, a multi-instrumentalist who co-founded The Flying Luttenbachers, a no-wave/free-jazz/punk-rock trio with a cult following. The Chicago Sound was essentially a whacked-out karaoke session, in which musicians were required to play covers of rock classics as the originals were played over monitors. They were not, however, allowed to tune up. "It turned into a horrible -- well, not horrible ... let's call it a beautiful train wreck of sound," Bill says.

Soon after, Bill caught a performance by the Alloy Orchestra, a trio that creates new scores for silent films -- in this case, the classic vampire flick Nosferatu.

These two experiences led Bill to form the Williwaw Ensemble, an all-uke organization dedicated to rule-based improvisation. The group's first all-acoustic performance "basically sounded like a bunch of cicadas molting." In subsequent performances -- some amplified, some not -- the group has played rock, jazz, and "just noise" behind Laurel and Hardy and "Felix the Cat" shorts. They have also accompanied a video fireplace tape.

Things have been a little slow lately, but the continued circulation of Rock That Uke, which features lots of footage of Bill talking and playing, has him thinking about his next Williwaw Ensemble project.

(When he isn't playing the ukulele, Bill plays Javanese drums in a gamelan orchestra maintained by the Friends of the Gamelan, a non-profit group associated with the University of Chicago. The Friends started playing in the 1970s on a collection of instruments that were brought from Java to the United States for the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893 -- the same world's fair that introduced the Hawaiian ukulele to mainland audiences.)

I, for one, cannot wait. But while I do, I will content myself with the performance footage on Rock That Uke. After all, how often do you get to see Robert Moritz of the '90s-era electric uke band "Uke Til U Puke" smashing his tiny ax on the ground like Pete Townsend in a funhouse mirror?

Not often enough.

Copyright ©2008 Alexander Gelfand

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