Vancouver Ukulele Festival 2019
When: March 22 to 24
Where: Croatian Cultural Centre
Tickets: for the March 22 Ukulele Gala Concert, $25 in advance at rubysukes.ca ($35 at the door)
Now in its 10th year, the Vancouver Ukulele Festival brings enthusiasts and musicians together for three days of concerts, workshops, and jams. Special guests include Grammy Award-winning Hawaiian virtuoso Daniel Ho, Seattle-based player Neal Chin, and musician/actress Heidi Swedberg (forever to be known by many as George’s girlfriend Susan Ross from Seinfeld). We talked to organizer Daphne “Ruby” Roubini, founder of Ruby’s Ukes ukulele school, about the event.
Q: The festival has grown quite a bit. Is that because of increasing interest in the ukulele?
A: I think it probably could have been bigger earlier in some ways, but it’s not funded. Partly it’s global interest in the ukulele. And partly it’s through performing locally, through my work with vintage jazz band Black Gardenia and my ukulele duo (Ruby & Smith, with husband Andrew Smith), and the school, Ruby’s Ukes. We started out with 12 people in one class, and now we have 350 students a term and 12 classes on offer per week three times a year, as well as a ukulele orchestra (Ruby’s Ukulele Orchestra). Generally, the reasons for its popularity is that the ukulele doesn’t come with any expectations, like the guitar or piano or saxophone, where you need to learn to read music and practice your scales and cover all the groundwork that needs to go into it. The ukulele has this instant access that suits everyone. And it’s inexpensive.
Q: It’s accessible, but there are also ukulele virtuosos, like Daniel Ho.
A: Yes. It’s an instrument of the people, but there are virtuosos from around the world showing that ukulele can represent any musical genre, and any mood of the human heart. It’s not just about being cheerful. Sometimes it can be quite mournful, but there’s a sweetness that makes it much more palatable.
Q: It must be advantageous for the festival to have a guest like Heidi Swedberg, who is well-known outside of the ukulele world, coming to town. She’s like an ambassador for the instrument.
A: It’s the second time she’s come. She lived the early part of her life in Hawaii, so she’s always loved the ukulele. Her love of the ukulele has led her to have this other career, where she travels around the world, and sings and teaches instructional ukulele workshops. When I say that people are always excited about her being part of this, she’s like “Why, it (Seinfeld) was 20 years ago!” But it’s iconic.
There are what I would call ukulele ambassadors out there, like the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. I saw them in 2001 in a small folk club. There were only 300 of us and a friend of mine invited me. I was studying jazz singing and piano at the time. And I couldn’t believe my eyes. They were so fantastic and musical, and they really brought joy to the audience.
Q: In tune with the instrument’s accessibility, a lot of the actual festival is workshops on Saturday and Sunday. How is the Friday night concert organized?
A: Everyone has 20 minutes. It’s this smorgasbord of ukulele styles. Del Rey will play blues and ragtime, Casey MacGill will play 40s swing. Daniel Ho’s playing flamenco ukulele. Ruby & Smith will do folk/jazz stuff to show fingerpicking style ukulele, Heidi will be singing with Daniel (Ward, Swedberg’s husband and a ukulele player in his own right), Eduardo Garcia will be doing chord melodies. Neil Chin does more jazz. So basically the ukulele is the star of the show.