John S. Radice was in eighth grade when he bought his first ukulele for a cool $8. Weighing barely 2 pounds, the small instrument hugely popular in the Hawaiian islands is now gaining a new global generation of fans, according to Radice.
Radice is a dedicated musician who leads ukulele jam sessions from 7 to 9 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month at Gloria J. Parks Community Center, 3234 Main St. His newly organized Buffalo Ukulele Club boasts 50 members. For more details visit www.buffaloukuleleclub.com.
Radice was ordained a Catholic priest in 1968. He subsequently left the clergy and has been married for more than 35 years. A longtime resident of North Buffalo, Radice, 71, has worked a variety of jobs. He was a New York City cab driver, an education consultant and most recently, a sales representative for a bath fitting company.
This Wednesday from 7 to 8:30 p.m., Radice will lead a special two-finger picking workshop at Music City, 3236 Main St. Admission is $15.
People Talk: How did the ukulele change your life?
John Radice: Aside from my family, I have never been as passionate about something as I have been about the ukulele. The reason is that the ukulele offers anyone who wants to make music the opportunity to do so without being able to read music. I can teach you to play a song in five minutes.
PT: How did you learn to play?
JR: I took lessons but stopped after two. I wanted to learn how to play the ukulele, and the instructor wanted to teach me music theory. I thought the ukulele was more manageable than a banjo. At the time I was playing a harmonica. Talk about a garage band. There were three of us. One played the cornet. One played the trombone, and I played the harmonica.
PT: The ukulele needs a little respect.
JR: With all respect to Tiny Tim, I don’t think he helped the cause. Yeah, the ukulele lost respect when it became so popular in the early 20th century. They started cranking plastic ukuleles out like toys and people stopped taking them seriously.
PT: What feeling do you get when you play?
JR: Like nothing in the world matters. You’re creating something – whether it’s good or not, it doesn’t matter. I play everyday. We get up about 5:30, and shortly after my wife leaves for work I’m generally in the music room and I promise myself I’m only going to spend 10 minutes there. An hour or so later, I have to tell myself to put the instrument down or I won’t get anything done that day. The ukulele is the answer to world peace.
PT: How so?
JR: If we could get all the world leaders to drop ukuleles on countries instead of bombs, here’s what would happen: You can’t shoot a gun and play the ukulele at the same time. And you can’t possibly play the ukulele and be mad at somebody. I wonder if we could get Putin and Obama to sit down for a ukulele class?
PT: Who are superstars among the world’s ukulele musicians?
JR: Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and Jake Shimabukuro are phenomenal ukulele players. Both are from Hawaii.
PT: I love the way the word ukulele sounds.
JR: It’s pronounced ook-ulele, not yuke-ulele. The instrument came from Portugal to Hawaii, where uku means flea and lele means jumping. Your fingers moving are like jumping fleas.
PT: Would you say you are helping to grow the next generation of ukulele players?
JR: No. I am part of a growth that is already taking place. I’m part of what is going on.
PT: What challenges you when playing the ukulele?
JR: Learning different chord positions. Two chords – G7 and C – open the door to many songs. The ukulele is about having fun. It’s no more complicated than that. Can you imagine a parent who wants to sing songs to his kids? Instead of singing the songs a cappella, imagine taking out an instrument and singing the nursery rhyme?