Kansas City Ukesters to honor veterans with WWI ukulele tribute
by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Even before the Beatles took the world by storm, a young Ken Kelly had picked up the guitar and was imitating the likes of Buddy Holly.
Today, the musically inclined Father Ken Kelly, pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Mission, is still strumming, but his instrument of choice is an unexpected one: the ukulele.
With his fingers already attuned to playing the guitar, he quickly picked up the chords as he learned to play the simpler, four-stringed ukulele.
He has found company in 140 others across the Kansas City area — from grade-school students to folks in their 80s — who strum along with him as part of the Kansas City Ukesters.
Father Kelly and a few others launched the ukulele group in 2006.
“And very soon it bloomed,” said Father Kelly.
Now the group gathers on the second Monday evening of each month in a large meeting area at St. Pius X Parish.
“There’s a smaller group of us that go out and play gigs,” said Father Kelly.
They’ve played everywhere from nursing homes to parish auctions to Johnson County Community College to the Liberty Memorial in downtown Kansas City, Mo.
While plenty of instruments require amplifiers and other big equipment for shows, the light, portable ukulele doesn’t require any of that. On the other hand, it doesn’t make much noise, so you don’t often find them in huge venues.
But the acoustics at Liberty Memorial have proven to be perfect for this instrument.
Father Kelly is excited to join other members of the Kansas City Ukesters at another event there this February, and he hopes to draw a full house for the free performance honoring veterans.
Members of the group will perform “The Great Ukulele Hits of World War I” at 2 p.m. on Feb. 10 in the museum auditorium at the Liberty Memorial.
Singalong sheets will be available so the audience can join in, and people can even bring their own ukuleles and strum along, said Father Kelly.
The Ukesters’ performance is part of a larger special exhibition at the museum called “Harmonies on the Home Front,” which explores the unifying force music had during the World War I era, both in the United States and overseas. The exhibit includes sheet music covers, lyrics, recordings, pictures and music.
Museum admission covers the cost for those who would like to explore the exhibition, but the Kansas City Ukesters’ performance itself is free to the public.
Ukuleles were really emerging on the music scene at that point in history, and bringing the Ukesters back to celebrate music of that time just seemed natural as the museum planned the exhibition.
“They were one we thought of right away,” said Denise Rendina, vice president of marketing for the National World War I Museum.
She attended a previous performance by the Ukesters there and loved the welcoming, family-friendly atmosphere the group created.
“It was really a delight to have them perform,” she said. “World War I obviously is a very serious subject, and we take it seriously. But music is a good way to introduce people who might not be familiar with history to that history.”
And the audience participation that the Ukesters invited — and which will be encouraged this time, as well — added to the energy.
“They invited the audience to sing along, and people just went wild for it,” she said.
People will recognize some of the songs — like “Over There” — right away, she said.
Father Kelly expects the group to play about 15 songs and said some of the other hits from that time include “K-K-K-Katy,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” “Mademoiselle from Armentieres” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.”
The Ukesters’ music hits a patriotic chord, but is just one piece of the music that accompanied that era, he added.
Rendina hopes people who come for the performance will take advantage of the opportunity to explore the museum. Those four years helped shape the way people are today, she noted.
And Father Kelly hopes it will also pique some interest in playing the ukulele.
“People can come out and listen to us play, and if they’re interested, maybe they can come join the group,” he said.
The group meets from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at St. Pius X and members are happy to help newcomers. All people need is themselves and their ukuleles — which they can buy used for a few dollars and new for not much more than that — and the group will help them get started.
Sessions start with easier songs with two chords and move on to more challenging music.
Several ukulele groups have spun off of the Kansas City group in both Kansas and Missouri.
“People just love doing this,” said Father Kelly.
‘The Great Ukulele Hits of World War I’
What: A singalong performance by the Kansas City Ukesters
When: 2 p.m. on Feb. 10
Where: World War I Museum Auditorium at Liberty Memorial (100 W. 26th St., Kansas City, Mo.)
Cost: Admission to the performance itself is free
Additional information: Singalong sheets will be provided