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Uke Fest with Ben Hassenger

Ben Hassenger’s musical career began in the early 1970s when he was arrested for playing “Smoke on the Water” on accordion and singing in animal sounds in the cafeteria at Lansing Community College. It was the start of something special, for sure.

Ben now works as a music facilitator with Special Education children, teaches ukulele to students and teachers in Michigan school systems, seniors at Prime Time in East Lansing, as well as group and individual ukulele lessons at Elderly Instruments, Interlochen Center for the Arts, and Michigan State University’s Community Music School. He plays guitar and ukulele in the bands Blue Jello and The Ukulele Kings and is the co-founder of the Lansing (MI) Area Ukulele Group and the organizer of the Mighty Uke Day festival, Interlochen’s Uketoberfest, and the Midwest Uke Camp in Olivet . He is also a prolific songwriter, with two of his songs about the Detroit Tigers enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. Ben’s a fun and involving performer with a variety of original songs about dogs, food, love, Michigan, and the other important things in life. You can meet Ben at Ashokan’s Uke Fest, Memorial Day weekend at Ashokan. 

How did you become ukulele player?
Ben: My very first instrument was the piano, but as a teenager in the late 60s/early 70s I gravitated towards the guitar ,which I played in a variety of bands and solo. In the spring of 2009, I traveled to Hawai’i and stumbled upon the famous Ukulele Festival Hawai’i in Waikiki. There were fabulous players from Hawai’i and across the world performing, but what really captured my attention was Peter Luongo’s Langley Ukulele Ensemble; a group of Canadian high school students playing multiple parts and singing like a choir. The group, and the fact that everyone at the festival was having such a great time, hooked me. I came home, started the Lansing Area Ukulele Group with some friends, and embarked on my ukulele journey which I am still traveling today.

What makes the ukulele different from other instruments?
Ben: I like to call the ukulele the “most folk of folk instruments”, because it brings folks together. Rarely do you see one person sitting by themselves playing; more often it’s a group of two, three, or dozens playing together and singing. It’s a very communal music experience and that’s one of the many things that makes it so very special.

Is the ukulele easy to pickup for a new musician? 
Ben: The ukulele is a very accessible instrument: it’s small and easy to travel with, you can get a decent uke for a modest amount of money, and you can get some immediate musical gratification by learning your first few chords in a single lesson. From there on, the sky’s the limit. Some of the finest musicians I’ve ever heard are ukulele players. It can be a simple, yet sophisticated, way to make music.

Is there one person who you think brought the Uke into popularity?
Ben: The ukulele was a very popular instrument in the early- to mid-twentieth century until Tiny Tim came along in the mid-60s and everyone looked at him, and the uke, as a joke. (He really got a bum rap; he was quite the musical historian and could reverently play the songs from the 1920s and 30s.)

The two people who sparked the rebirth of the ukulele were Israel Kamakawiwoʻole (Bruddah IZ) whose totally impromptu mashup of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” reintroduced the ukulele and the culture it represents to the world outside of Hawai’i as well as Jake Shimabukuro, whose rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” recorded in Central Park became one of the first YouTube videos to go viral.

How about a ukulele player today who is totally on the forefront of the scene today?
Ben: Jake Shimabukuro is certainly the most well-known and respected of the players today, but there are many others who are making their name in the ukulele community: James Hill, Taimane Gardner, Daniel Ho, Victoria Vox, and even pop icons such as Billie Eilish, Jason Mraz, and Taylor Swift.

What is your favorite Uke-based song? Why?
Boy, I don’t really know if I have a favorite; the ukulele lends itself nicely to playing interpretations of a variety of songs and musical styles. Two of my favorite songs to play lately that were not originally recorded on ukulele are “Rainbow” by Kacey Musgraves and “They Don’t Know” by Kirsty MacColl. I think the stripped-down approach with the uke fits these two songs quite well.

I’m hooked, now what should I look for when purchasing a uke?
Ben: There are so many considerations when buying a ukulele; size, woods, price, etc. A good place for people just joining the ukulele revolution is this Reddit thread: https://www.reddit.com/r/ukulele/wiki/buying_guide/