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Vickroy: Ukelele players chase blues, transcend blahs

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Updated: March 12, 2013 6:07AM



In cold, snowy February, Chicago seems about as far away from Hawaii as the sun is from Earth.

Nevertheless, on a tip from a WXRT-FM deejay, we headed out on a gloomy evening last week in search of what promised to be a bit of island heaven right here in the gray, frozen Southland.

We were a tad skeptical when we entered the nondescript office building called the Executive Center on Vollmer Road in Chicago Heights, even more so when a kiosk directed us to the basement.

The basement, we wondered. Paradise in a basement?

And there it was.

A small, bright, inviting nook, its yellow and green walls covered with ukeleles — all kinds, all brands. Lime green, tie-dyed, even the top-of-the-line Kamaka, which are made from Hawaiian koa wood.

GiGi Monaco greeted us at the door with a sunny smile, despite the fact that she once lived in Honolulu and now lives here.

Her shop is called Wonderwall Emporium. It is devoted to promoting the ukelele and the sitar.

Monaco, a musician, Beatles fan and ukelele aficionado, helps landlocked Midwesterners learn, play and celebrate the simple sounds that are synonymous with her homeland.

Monaco runs two ukelele groups, a newly organized south suburban chapter and a longer-standing meetup in Oak Park.

This night was the second meeting of the Ukelele Group of Chicago’s South Suburbs, a collection of musicians — some young, some not, some seasoned, some newbies — who gather round the shop and chase the winter blues with two hours of strumming and singing to the music of Ringo Starr, Johnny Cash and various Hawaiian artists.

They croon to “Rocky Top,” pluck to “Can’t Buy Me Love” and help each other through the more challenging “Something.”

Stu Hiley, of Homewood, fell in love with the ukelele during a trip to Kauai in 2007.

“In a little music shop there I saw this tenor ukelele and, on a whim, I bought it,” Hiley said. He’s been playing it ever since. His children, ages 2 and 4, like to sing along.

Also a Beatles fan, Hiley had been driving sometimes more than an hour to Oak Park to play with Monaco’s sister group for years. He can practically walk over to the new location.

Last year, Dave Vincent, of Mokena, saw a news report on Warren Buffett that mentioned how the billionaire likes to play the ukelele. Intrigued, Vincent decided to give it a try.

He liked it so much that he bought all his nieces and nephews ukeleles for Christmas last year.

“It’s a happy instrument,” Vincent said. “And it’s one instrument that I can play while singing. I play the piano but I can’t sing at the same time.”

For Marge Ellis, one of the many club members who hail from Indiana, the ukelele is a way to get through a gray day.

“It’s changed my life,” said Ellis, who lives in St. John and has been playing since she retired two years ago.

She plays for her husband. Together they sing their favorite song, “Dos Arbolitos.”

“It’s a romantic song, in Spanish,” she said.

Some of the strummers are longtime musicians, including Bill Johnson, of Griffith, Ind., who built his own ukelele, and Andy Barlo, of Schererville, who also plays in two Hawaiian steel guitar clubs. Barlo owns seven ukeleles, including a higher-pitched Tahitian one that has eight strings.

Tim Boyd, of Frankfort, played banjo for years. After seeing a YouTube video of someone playing Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” on a ukelele, he added that instrument to his repertoire.

He says jam sessions like the one at Wonderwall and the bluegrass ones he attends at Down Home Guitars in Frankfort introduce players to new music.

“I like learning new songs,” he said. Plus, he added, “Like everyone says, ‘You can’t help but smile when playing a Ukelele.’ ”

Monaco, who was born in Honolulu, grew up playing the ukelele.

“We all did,” she says. “Back in the day, all kids attending school in Hawaii learned to play the ukelele. Everyone in class had one.”

They also learned the hula.

Chicago is a good 4,200 miles from the island of Oahu.

Monaco bridges the distance with the sweet strains of “Blue Skies” and “Take Me Home Country Roads.”

“Everyone asks me why I live here,” she smiles and shrugs. “I got married.”

Her husband, Clar Monaco, is the premier sitar player in the Chicago area. He gives lessons and performs regularly.

Her son, Phoenix Tang, attended Infant Jesus of Prague grammar school and Bloom High School his freshman year before deciding to finish school in Hawaii, where all of GiGi Monaco’s extended family still lives.

When he moved in with his grandparents, Monaco said her son left behind his ukelele. Though it had been several years since she’d played, she embraced it as a means of staying connected.

“I played it so much there are finger holes where all the frets are,” she said.

Tang recently finished a stint with the Army National Guard. He has a daughter, Monaco’s only grandchild.

Wonderwall grew out of an online sitar store she and Clar ran for years. They opened the Oak Park shop with three ukeleles in 2006. Two years later, the west suburban meetup was formed.

Ukelele playing became so popular that she quickly expanded the store and easily caught the attention of Chicago media. The Monaco’s have been featured on WGN and CBS-TV, as well as in Newsweek.

In 2008, she organized the first Hawaiian style ukelele party for now-President Barack Obama.

Monaco’s ukelele players perform annually at the Fest for Beatles Fans’ Battle of the Bands competition.

“It is so much fun, everyone loves it,” she said. Even the newcomers, who stay to the back of the stage so they can read the sheet music taped to the backs of the players in the front row.

The ukelele is about fun, she said. It’s also a mood lifter. You can’t make the sun shine or the snow go away, but the strains of “My Little Grass Shack” can transport you to a place where warm breezes blow and the surf’s always up.

Mahalo.



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