There is a shop in the heart of Kreuzberg in Berlin that sells nothing but tiny instruments. I’ve walked by it several times, over several trips to the city, and each time I do I become more interested in tiny instruments.
Most especially the “banjo uke” (aka “banjolele”), a ukulele-sized banjo (or is it a ukulele in with banjo clothing?). It ticks all my “strange hybrid” boxes, it’s portable, and it sounds (I imagine, for I’ve never heard one) like a banjo, the most sweet and mournful of the stringed instruments.
And so, ever since, I’ve had my eye out for a banjo uke of my own: every time we’ve been to Halifax in the last couple of years I wander into the Halifax Folklore Centre trying to look all cool and musiciany and inevitably panic and flee before any of the clerks have a chance to quiz me on pentatony or fret management before they allow me to touch anything.
Which is why I knew I had to spring into action this morning when the following Kijiji alert hit my inbox:
It was a banjo uke. In Prince Edward Island. In nearby Vernon River, no less.
Still got it? Yes! Can I see it? Come any time! How about 2:00 p.m.? See you then!
I pile into the car at 1:30 p.m. and head east toward Vernon River. Take the second left turn after the bridge as instructed. Locate №176. Pull into the driveway. Brave the rain and dash to the side door.
“You Pete?” asks the wealthy American industrialist renovator (assumptions on all but the last point).
“Come on in,” he says, “this is Sam. Want a coffee?”
The banjo uke is presented. Purchased at auction somewhere near Vinalhaven, Maine. It’s a Le Domino brand, made in America, with a domino pattern on the front and back. In not-bad-shape.
I do a round of My Dog Has Fleas. Hold it up to the light.
“I’ll take it!” I proclaim.
For how often does one find a domino-pattern-emblazoned banjo uke for sale in Vernon River?
Back out into the rain.
In the car it occurs to me that, relatively speaking, I’m not too far from Georgetown where I recall there being a business, across from the Kings Playhouse, in the business of repairing stringed instruments. “The Guitar Man,” it was called. I had ice cream next door last summer. Unable to track down a phone number, I decide to brave the rain and drive up for a visit.
“Maybe he’s a reclusive luthier with no phone,” I reason to myself.
I arrive in beautiful downtown Georgetown 30 minutes later. No sign of The Guitar Man where I remember him. The personable administrator in Georgetown Town Hall spots me looking confused and asks if she can help. I tell my story.
“He moved to Charlottetown in the spring,” she reveals.
I am ushered into Town Hall and she offers to give me the new address in town. Unable to find it quickly, she simply raises the luthier on the phone, chats for a second, and then hands me the phone.
“You’re not the first person to drive to Georgetown by accident looking for me,” the luthier explains.
We make arrangements for me to visit his new in-town shop; as it happens I walk by every day on the way back from Oliver’s school drop-off and pay it no heed.
“Be sure to go to the Maroon Pig while you’re in Georgetown,” the luthier recommends.
This recommendation is seconded by the personable administrator.
So I go to the Maroon Pig. Which is an art gallery and bakery. I feel compelled to purchase things, as on this rainy day it seems like customers will be rare. I purchase a sticky bun, violating my don’t-eat-sugar habit of late, and some dessert for the family and a loaf of bread.
I almost drop the sticky bun on my way out the door but I catch it at the last minute. It is very good but, having a don’t-eat-sugar habit of late, it immediately sends me into a bizarre sort of sugar mania. It’s not unpleasant.
I drive back to town. Find the luthier: AMJ Guitars he is called. “Your Downtown Guitar Service Shop” says his website. Amazing. We have a downtown guitar service shop in Charlottetown. I should have been buying banjo ukes years ago.
Adam, the luthier (Adam M Johnston) is the least pretentious luthier I have ever met. Yes, he can breath some new life into the banjo uke, he tells me: clean it up, lower the (insert technical term for the thingy that holds up the strings) and re-string it. $40 plus strings. Seems like the deal of the century.
He’s got a lot of work queued up, so it will be a few weeks. “Fine,” I tell him, “I’ve gone 47 years without owning a banjo uke; I can wait another couple of weeks.”
So, other than My Dog Has Fleas, I’ve still yet to play my new banjo uke. But already it’s taken me to Georgetown for sticky buns and made me aware I’ve a luthier just 3 blocks from my house.
I should have been buying banjo ukes years ago.
I have been searching for one of these for a year!
We need to chat more often.
Congrats! Welcome to the club.
If someone didn’t know you this story would be a great introduction to the way your mind works
Woohoo! You’ve joined the dark side! I have a ukulele friend in Charlottetown if you want to find out where to go to play banjo uke with other people. And if you are ever in Toronto with your banjo uke, come to the Corktown Ukulele Jam — you might run into me or Dan Misener there (hi Dan!).