By Dawn Clarke / For The Nugget

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The ukulele is becoming a musical instrument of choice for professionals and at least 40 locals who gather each Monday night at Music City to play everything from folk to top-10 music.

Mike Perreault, from Music City, says the ukulele started gaining in popularity about four years go.

“We noticed there was such a large demand for ukuleles and it crossed all generations,” he says. “So, we came up with the idea of forming a club.”

While Israel Kamakawiwo’oles’ rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow may be the first song that comes to mind when people think of the small stringed instrument, Perreault says a number of musicians started using the ukulele in their music, including Train in the song Hey Soul Sister.

Music City provides the venue for the club and Heather J. Topps provides the expertise. Neither charges for the service. Since its inception, the group has grown from the original eight members to about 40 musicians, ranging in age from six to 80,  who gather each Monday night to play their ukuleles and sing along.

The evening begins at 6 p.m. for beginners. The more advanced players join in from 7 to 8:30 p.m.

Not only does the group gather for members’ enjoyment, but some of the musicians have formed an actual performing group which is kept busy playing at any number of events throughout the year.

One of the first members of the club, Shirly Kayes, is also a performing member.

“My neighbour asked my husband if he wanted to join,” she says. “I thought it was just for men.”

However, when she found out women also were welcome Kayes didn’t look back. She now owns seven ukuleles.

According to Kayes, the price of a ukulele ranges from $30 to $30,000, but she admits she isn’t in the market for any more, at least not right now.

“Who’d have thought that somebody in their sixties could learn to play?” she asks.

Describing herself as a ‘ukuholic,’ Kayes says she started out with a soprano, a four-stringed instrument and the smallest of the ukulele family.

“That’s what children usually start out with,” she says.

From there, Kayes moved on to a concert ukelele. And when her ability improved, she moved on to a tenor, and then a banjo ukulele.

“”Then I got this baby,” she says holding up her ukulele. “It is electric, has five strings and has a low G and a high G. So then, of course I had to get the amp and microphone to go with it.”

Kayes believes the ukulele is the “perfect” instrument, because, “anybody can play it.

“I tried, over the years, to play the guitar and then the piano, but I was never successful,” she admits.

She is currently teaching her five-year-old grandson and recently taught a 90-year-old woman how to play the instrument.

“If you can learn to play three chords, you can play the ukulele,” she says. “Now, I start the day singing.”

Kayes says while some people come to the Monday night sessions to play music others come primarily to sing.

“We all have one common denominator – we love music,” she says.

Pat Carriere started last August and considers herself a relative newcomer.

While she has a music background, the Monday night sessions she has with the group are some of the most precious moments in her week.

Carriere says her husband, Simon, played the guitar with a country and western band and more recently the Worship Team at St. Brice’s Church until he died several years ago.

“So, coming here makes me feel close to him,” she says. “Much of the music we play here was music he played. Sometimes, it is like he is sitting looking over my shoulder saying, ‘See, I told you.'”

While taking the ukulele lessons and joining the group was her first step, Carriere has since started taking piano lessons and sees the two as complementary.

“The group is very welcoming,” she says. “I knew no cords when I first came and somebody lent me a ukulele.

“Heather taught me two chords on the first night and every night I learn another chord. The core performing group is very gracious and sit beside us, letting us strum the wrong note. That encourages you to come back.”

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By GORD YOUNG, The Nugget

If you’re a musician in North Bay, chances are you’ve spent some time at Music City.

The store has become an institution – a place where generations of local bands and budding musicians got their start.

Many purchased their first instrument at the shop and others learned to play their first chord. With its rows of shiny new guitars hanging from the walls and sprawling drums kits set out on the floor, some may have even fallen in love with music after simply stepping inside its doors.

“It’s a gathering place,” said Bob Ahern, a long-time employee who was on hand Saturday as the store marked its 50th anniversary.

The shop celebrated the major milestone with a reception and ribbon cutting during the day and a evening gala at the Davedi Club, featuring sets of music curated according to genre by some of the city’s most prominent musicians, including Neil Kennedy, Don Brose, Harley Renaud, Jim Harney, Jake Thomas and Shawn Moore. More than 50 musicians took part and the event sold out to a crowd of approximately 300 people, including some who travelled from across the province and elsewhere to attend.

Although the business has evolved since its inception in 1964, Ahern, who’s worked at Music City for 42 years, said the store’s role as cornerstone for the local music scene hasn’t changed.

He said it continues to be a place where musicians and music lovers alike congregate, whether they’re looking for the right piece of equipment or merely hanging out to jam or talk about music.

In the early days, Ahern said there were more than 20 local venues for live music in the city, including places like the Blue Spruce, St. Regis, the Belmont and the Continental. With some of those venues featuring bands six nights a week, Ahern said the store did a lot of rentals and catering to performers.

Roger and Reva Perreault purchased the shop in 1997, expanding a year later with a move to its current location on Algonquin Avenue, in the former St. Regis building.

Roger Perreault, whose son Mike is now managing the store, said his staff and the service they provide is the reason the store is still going strong after 50 years.

“It’s family,” he said, referring to the community that’s developed at the store over the years.

The store’s link to the past is also ever-present, with a wall of fame documenting North Bay’s musical history taking up most of the side entrance. Perreault, who started the tribute years ago with only a few photos, said people will spend 30 minutes or more on their way in or out looking at the display. Autographed posters of big name bands that have played in North Bay also adorn the walls.

The shop opened it doors long before many of its current customers and employees were born.

Karl von Estorff, 17, started working at Music City about a year-and-a-half ago. Like some of the other employees, von Estorff started hanging around the store when he was 14 and was eventually hired on.

“I remember the first time I met Roger,” he said, noting the store and its owner left an impression. “It felt like family.”

Mike Perreault, who was 18 when his parents purchased the shop, said he can’t think of a better way to make living.

“It’s awesome. As a musician, I couldn’t ask for anything better. I’m around the things that I love every day,” said Perreault, who takes his job of helping fellow musicians and outfitting them with the right instruments seriously.

Selling someone their first guitar, for instance, is something special, he said.

He spent the past year or so organizing the 50th anniversary celebrations. And Perreault said there is no better way to mark the occasion than a big party filled with music.

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Music City is celebrating 50 years in business.  Owners Roger and Mike Perreault joined us to talk about the history of Music City and the celebrations happening on Saturday at the store and later that night at The Davedi Club.  Tickets are still available for the gala on Saturday night featuring local musicians Don Brose, Harley Renaud, Jake Thomas, Jim Harney, Neil Kennedy and Shawn Moore.  You can hear our full interview below.

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By GORD YOUNG, The Nugget

Manitoba Hal Brolund is the unlikely ambassador for a tiny musical instrument that’s making a big comeback – the ukulele.

A decade ago, the dainty four-stringed guitar, may have been dismissed as little more than a novelty. But in the hands of this husky bluesman, there’s no doubting the legitimacy of the ukulele as a serious instrument.

“It changed my life,” said Brolund, recalling how he learned to play the instrument after discovering a ukulele in his grandfather’s house nearly 20 years ago while moving him into a seniors’ home.

Brolund, who stopped in North Bay Monday to deliver a seminar at Music City followed by a performance at the Raven and Republic, has now been strumming away on the “uke” professionally for more than a decade, carving out his own niche as Canada’s premier ukulele bluesman.

And he says the popularity of the instrument has come a long way in that time.

“There’s been an explosion in the last few years,” said Brolund, noting the ukulele is no longer seen as the quirky, unique instrument played by the likes of Tiny Tim, who many may remember from the 1960s.

Brolund, who is also a self-taught guitarist, said there were scant resources available when he first picked up the uke.

And he credits much of the instrument’s resurgence to the Internet, where YouTube tutorials are only a click away.

He also points to the likes of ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, who released the album Ukulele Songs in 2011, for helping to cast the instrument in a new light.

Brolund said it’s also relatively easy to pick up the basics of the ukulele, which likely lends to its growing popularity.

“Anywhere I go, I do a lot of teaching,” he said, noting the average person could learn a few chords in a matter of minutes and be playing a song in less than a day.

Brolund’s stopover in North Bay was arranged by the Music City Ukulele Club, which consists of about 30 members who meet at the Oak Street music store Monday nights.

Music City’s Mike Perreault said one of the reasons the store started the club was that it noticed the instrument’s rise in popularity.

He said a decade ago the store may have had two or three ukuleles in stock. But today, Perreault said there’s typically several dozen on display.

“It’s really easy to learn and really fun to play,” he said, noting the small and easy-to-transport ukulele isn’t too loud and can be played virtually anywhere.

Club member Paul Marut said the group arranged for Brolund’s seminar and performance because it was impressed with his ability to play and his non-conventional blues style.

“It’s a really democratic instrument,” he said, noting the ukulele is affordable and appeals to a wide range of ages and musical styles.

Marut said local club members range in age from young teens to seniors. And he said there are people playing everything from traditional Hawaiian music to punk rock.

Marut played the ukulele for the first time last summer after hearing about the club from a friend.

He said if you pick up a guitar, people expect to be wowed. But if you pick up a ukulele, you can always expect a smile. Plus, Marut said there’s always the chance of surprising your listeners.

He said the club, which meets Monday’s at 7 p.m. at Music City, welcomes new members. And he said ukuleles are available for those wanting to give it a try.