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Duke of uke

Shop owner Peter Hix brings love of ukelele to Batavia

After a long, grueling day at work, Batavia resident Kathy Kussro doesn’t resort to a bubble bath or a glass of Chardonnay to unwind. No, she has found an offbeat alternative – playing the ukulele.

“When I come home from my job, I’ll play a couple songs on my uke and it relaxes me after talking to hundreds of people at work,” she said. Kussro, technical support specialist at West Chicago’s In the Swim, learned to play the instrument at Hix Brothers Music Store on Wilson Street in Batavia. She takes lessons with a group of seven other students, ranging in age from five to 61.

That’s the beauty of music according to Peter Hix, owner and chief ukulele teacher at Hix Brothers.

“It transcends age,” he says. The group lessons, which he refers to as the "ukulele club," have been offered for the past two years at the Batavia store, 1941 W. Wilson Batavia, and for three years at the Aurora Hix location.

“We get together, play music and have fun,” said Hix, adding that sometimes, he will play along on the lap steel, a type of steel guitar, with his students.

The ukulele is a small four-stringed instrument that looks like a miniature guitar. Portuguese laborers brought a version of it to Hawaii in the nineteenth century. It first became popular at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and has since experienced waves of popularity in the 1920s and 1950s. In 1999, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole played a version of “Over the Rainbow” on his uke and it was used in a commercial for eToys. The song was so popular that it has been licensed more than 100 times to sell everything from food to paint. In 2002, former Beatle Paul McCartney fueled a new uke frenzy when he played it in a tribute concert for fellow Beatle George Harrison who often played the instrument and had recently passed away. Four years later, Jake Shimabukuro, who Hix said is the most famous uke player today, received millions of hits on YouTube with his version of Harrison’s “My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Hix said he had always carried ukuleles in his store but started to order more when customers’ interest in it grew. Then, when the ukulele (also referred to as the uke) made a comeback about two years ago, Hix decided to offer lessons. There is one beginner-level ukulele group at the Batavia location and three more advanced groups at the Aurora site.

He attributes this craze to the music of Kamakawiwo’ole and Shimabukuro as well as to movies, TV commercials and bands that incorporate the unique sound of the ukulele. For instance, it was a big feature in Train’s 2009 hit “Hey, Soul Sister.” The 2010 movie “Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog” also drew people to the instrument, Hix said.

Its popularity is not surprising, according to Hix. “It’s a social, happy instrument and it’s easy to play with only four strings,” he said.

Indeed, Kussro learned to play Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” in one 45-minute class. She also learned to play “Happy Birthday” which comes in handy at parties, she said.

Fellow uke club member Kristi Pinkepank also likes that the uke is easy to play. The Batavia resident and Waubonsee Community College student has taken lessons on and off for about two years and enjoys it because the music is light and uplifting.

“We play happy, simple and fun songs, like the classic Hawaiian music and some Beatles hits that I really like,” she said. Plus, the instrument itself doesn't warrant a big investment.They range in price from $35 for a beginner model to $1,300 for a handmade Hawaiian instrument.

“I got mine for about $40,” Pinkepank said, adding she has joined the groups in performances at special events, such as the Batavia Trader Joe’s summer 10th anniversary party. The more advanced students perform at a variety of functions, playing old-school Hawaiian as well as Jawaiian (Jamaican-Hawaiian) songs. Occasionally vocal and bass students from Hix will accompany the ukulele orchestra.

In addition to the uke clubs, Hix teaches individual lessons. For more information or to register for lessons, call Hix Brothers at (630) 406-0044.

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