River Ukes gently rock the St. John Valley
ST. JOHN VALLEY, Maine — The ukulele is arguably among the least complicated of musical instruments to master. This does not mean the small four-stringed guitar is incapable of rocking the St. John Valley.
A group of musicians who call themselves the River Ukes, and whose members range from elementary school-aged children to seniors, have proven this in recent months as they’ve delivered crowd-gathering performances while playing multiple ukes at settings as diverse as local kitchen parties and regional festivals.
Roger Damboise, 71, a founding member of the River Ukes, is a retired Madawaska School Department educator and professional musician.
He is proficient at playing the ukulele, guitar, mandolin, and harmonica. As Damboise pointed out with his easy sense of humor, he is also skilled at playing the radio.
Damboise said there is much a person can gain by playing, and hearing the ukulele.
“It’s the comfort it gives the uke player — it’s an easy instrument. It just brings a peaceful atmosphere to players, and listeners I would imagine,” he said.
Damboise began the River Ukes group through a course at the St. John Valley Senior College, but quickly tried to spread the appreciation for the instrument to younger generations as well, including to school-aged children whose music courses the local school board had cut short in cost saving efforts.
“I thought, if we could get a uke group started, we could eventually get some of the students involved in playing music again,” he said.
Age may have been a factor in joining the River Ukes for Jeanne Nadeau, 70, of Fort Kent, who first took up the instrument during a class with the St. John Valley Senior College. However, it is a love for the ease of the instrument which keeps her playing.
“I like just being here enjoying the music with the people and having fun,” she said. “I always liked music. When I started this, I wasn’t sure whether I would like it or not, but I have fun doing this and I meet new people.”
The group has played for large and small gatherings, from the 2017 Acadian Festival in Madawaska to St. John Valley kitchen parties, and will sometimes busk on Saturdays at local businesses. The members hope to use any proceeds from listener donations to buy a new sound system.
“The way River Ukes has come together has been amazing,” said member Andrew Birden, who also is general manager of Northeast Publishing. “So many local people, from our senior citizens stretching to our elementary school children, have picked up the ukulele to enjoy playing music. The part I love most is when a person, whether he or she is playing the ukulele or just listening, realizes the instrument is much more than a toy. All of us started out with simple songs, but it’s a pretty short stretch to move from playing ‘Froggy Went A Courtin’ to making that four-stringed instrument cry out with some serious soul.”
Damboise said audiences most often leave a River Ukes performance with a new perspective about the instrument and the musicians who play it.
“They’re very surprised because usually you think of a uke as a toy but when you hear the group play, especially with Andrew’s bass, they’re surprised. It gives you kind of a beat and it gives you the bottom of the low notes,” he said.
The River Ukes welcome new members of all ages and at all levels of musical ability. In fact, according to Damboise, the Ukes would like to have younger people join their ranks. They also welcome singers, regardless of instrumental prowess.
“We don’t discourage people from singing. Even if they have a poor voice, we encourage them to jump in and sing,” Damboise said.
The River Ukes meet on Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m. at the Fort Kent Outdoor Center. For more information about the River Ukes, to book a performance, or to join the group, call Roger Damboise at (207) 834-3390.