To stereotype, Rich James looks more electric guitar than ukulele: One of two guitarists in Durham heavy metal titans Tooth, James is tall, with thick legs and long hair, a stiff beard of brown hair extending several inches from his chin. He wears sneakers and band T-shirts and jeans. He delivers pizza.
But last month, James sat in his small house in Durham's Cleveland-Holloway district, waiting for the power to be connected. He couldn't plug in his amps to practice his riffs at full volume, so he bided his time with a quiet, tiny ukulele.
The scene is exemplary of the uke's universal appeal: The instrument benefits from low entry requirements, as it's a quick learn at a modest price. It doesn't require amplification or accessories. "People like playing ukulele at least to the extent that people like popping bubble wrap, if not more," reasons Durham uke enthusiast Ted Hannon. "There's this child-like curiosity and sense of adventure about making noise."
Hannon, who's been a member of the Durham Ukulele Orchestra since 2003, fell in love with the instrument through an obsession with The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. After being introduced to an organization called Ukuleles for Peace by a fellow four-string enthusiast, Hannon decided to use his passion to help others. With the nonprofit, musician Paul Moore employs the ukulele's sense of wonder and simple nature to unite Jewish and Arab children in strife-ridden Israel. Moore teaches the uke to students in the Muslim community of Tira and the Jewish town Hod Hasharon, then brings them together to perform as a ukulele orchestra. He breaks down social barriers between the two cultures with a multitude of four-string, cheap acoustic instruments.
Thus inspired, Hannon began mobilizing several circles of the Durham music scene in January for a Ukuleles for Peace benefit. Dubbed the Ukulele Challenge, the fundraiser quickly gained the support of High Strung, an instrument shop in Durham that's long hosted a vibrant ukulele jam in its Broad Street storefront. The store offered to discount each uke sold to participating musicians by $100. The Pinhook, a downtown bar striving to provide a space to advocate for Durham's artistic community, agreed to host the event.
The eight-act bill blossomed with unexpected one-offs—like James' country uke group The Servant Hearts—and scene standbys, like Peter Holsapple and The Wigg Report. As expected, most are using the challenge to experiment under the limitations of the ukulele. "I'm used to having a lot more notes at my disposal to say what I want on an instrument," explains Holsapple, who purchased an Ovation electric ukulele a few years ago and recorded a tune on it for hERE aND nOW, his upcoming album with fellow dB Chris Stamey. "With a uke, you have four notes, so you need to make every one of them count toward the complexity of your chording. [The] ukulele has made me really investigate the most fundamental elements of each chord."
He's been stealing time for practice whenever possible, including his recent drive to New Orleans for Continental Drifters' reunion gigs. "I had the uke in my lap so if I got stuck in traffic, I could practice a little at the wheel," Holsapple says.
James hadn't done much more than fool around with a friend's uke when he picked up his own from High Strung, but he credits the relatively easy transition to his experience on the classical guitar. "Technically, the most challenging thing is the transposition of songs, because of the way it's tuned," he explains. "Playing a song on the guitar and then trying to play the same song in the same key on a ukulele requires a whole different chord progression." James also faces a limitation that he's rarely had to deal with in his cranked-to-eleven main gig: volume. "A ukulele can only get so loud, which makes song dynamics a little tricky to work out."
For their part, James and Holsapple are being rather secretive about the treatments they've worked up, and the surprises are just another part of the show's appeal, according to Hannon. "People really seem to like the idea of going out and seeing a show that's something different," he reasons, though the ukulele has been experiencing a revival in pop culture.
Although the ukulele traces its roots back to 1879, when immigrants from Portugal's Madeira Island arrived in Honolulu aboard the Ravenscrag, the instrument is nearly always associated with the often campy hapa haole tunes of Hawaiian luaus. In recent years, the instrument has undergone a surge in popularity, thanks in part to Hawaiian-born virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and its larger role in pop-rock music. Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder has been known to give it a strum, and the ukulele's been championed in the Pitchfork circle by indie folk orchestra Beirut and singer/songwriters Jens Lekman and Phosphorescent. Even electronic dance duo Ratatat threw in some uke on b-side "Mahalo."
Though he was moved by the mission of Ukuleles for Peace to use the uke to unite, Hannon was also motivated by his desire to give back to the Durham scene and leave a bit of a legacy if and when the New York native moves on, hoping to make the Ukulele Challenge an annual event.
"I've totally fallen in love with this place and I've always wanted to move out of just enjoying the culture and community that this place has been offering me ever since I got here and actually create something and leave something."
Pinhook co-owner Kym Register expects the community to respond in kind. "The local artist community tends to support itself," she says, and it's especially true when there's a purpose involved. "From the venue standpoint, fundraisers and benefits are the most highly attended events at The Pinhook."
Hannon is passionate about moving the concept beyond the Bull City, though, and dreams of spreading the challenge to the Northeast and using the events to help organize gig swaps and artist residencies. "I'm not really sure how easily it's going to scale, but I think it would be kind of fun to have a little corridor of sister cities," he says, and he's already seen interest from a potential partner in Rhode Island.
"You can really tell the guy believes in what he's doing," Register says of Hannon. "The idea of music as a universal language that can be used to facilitate a dialogue between two communities is ancient, and seeing it used to break down social and political barriers between kids in other countries is seriously heartwarming."
The Ukulele Challenge happens at The Pinhook Friday, May 15, at 10 p.m. A $5 donation is requested. The lineup, from openers to headliners, is Durham Ukulele Orchestra, Peter Holsapple, The Wigg Report, Erie Choir, Nevin J. Carswell (with accompanying musicians), The Koyanagi Sisters, Persona Au Gratin and Servant Hearts. For more, see ukulelesforpeace.com.