One giant leap for ukulele

By Meryl Fulinara

Not just for the islands of paradise and the sands of tropical beaches, the ukulele is going where no man has gone before-to outer space.

The tiny four-stringed instrument is the star of a cabaret show at Silvie’s Lounge, 1902 W. Irving Park Road, which happens only four times a year. On Dec. 6, the ukulele open mic night, themed “Uke Galactica,” is the last show of the year and will explore the universe and beyond.

The free event was started by Mike Simons, an independent producer, and Toni Bianchi, who works at an Internet-based company, last February. The idea spurred after Simons had the pleasure of seeing a ukulele cabaret in New York City.

“[New York] started their ukulele cabaret a little bit before we did,” Simons said. “I was so utterly inspired by what I saw that night that I told myself I needed to bring this to Chicago.”

Bianchi said after Simons got back from New York and explained the concept of a ukulele-centered open mic, Bianchi, a little drunkenly, agreed to help Simons.

“I told [Simons], ‘I know how to play the ukulele; I could help you,'” Bianchi said. “I forgot that he [might] follow through with the idea, and by the next day he scheduled a place for us to do our first show.”

Usually, the nights consist of 15 to 20 musical acts that include music from every genre possible. The performers have the option of either performing three songs or play a 15-minute set.

Artists who show up are encouraged to dress up and be however involved or weird as they want to be, Bianchi said. Performers can present both original and cover songs.

When Ukulele Cabaret started, it was an open mic set-up where performers came in and played their songs, but since then, Simons and Bianchi started encouraging musicians to RSVP a slot beforehand so they can get a feel of how the night will run.

“I think [the concept] is great,” said Tim Joyce, director of retail operations at a music store and a friend of Bianchi. “It’s an amazing building of a community that is out there, but getting people together on a regular basis to do that is a great thing.”

The pair typically starts out by brainstorming themes. For the Dec. 6 open mic, the last of the year, Simons and Bianchi came up with a theme that could be loosely interpreted without being too strict.

“We wanted people to be able to draw from as many different areas [of inspiration] for their set,” Simons said. “If you think of all the artists that have songs about planets, stars and the solar system, you’ve got Funkadelic, David Bowie and the B52’s. [There’s] a wide range to choose from.”

Bianchi, who has played the instrument off and on for a long time, said the ukulele is easy to learn how to play and is a great gateway instrument.

“It’s a versatile, fun instrument and it’s easy to learn. It has a quirky, eclectic quality that appeals to people from all walks of life,” Simons said. “We’ve got people who come and play electric ukulele with effects, pedals and intricate arrangements, and then we have people who come and play traditional Hawaiian music.”

At The Old Town School of Folk Music’s Different Strummer Music Store, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., ukuleles are one of the biggest selling items for both kids and adults, Joyce said.

The age range for performers is vast. Simons said, because it’s a 21-and-up bar, you see musicians anywhere between the ages of 21 and 70.

Both Simons and Bianchi said they usually have a good idea of who might come to the ukulele shows. At first there were just friends and associates who would show up, but Ukulele Cabaret started catching on, and there has been someone new every time.

“There has been someone surprising who will show up out of the blue and we [won’t] know how they found out about the show,” Bianchi said.

For more information on Ukulele Cabaret, visit To sign up to be a part of ‘Uke Galactica’ on Dec. 6 at Silvie’s Lounge, 1902 W. Irving Park Road, musicians can contact Mike Simons at (312) 278-3122. Admission is free.