At more than 6 feet tall, Ithaca College junior Nick Bombicino is physically intimidating, but the broad-shouldered funnyman is also a natural performer with a silky, deep voice who plays piano, drums and brass instruments. His large hands look as though they could crush his tiny ukulele. But for Bombicino, that sight gag is part of the Hawaiian instrument’s appeal.
“It’s small, and I’m a bigger guy, and I’m tall, so holding this tiny little thing is a little bit ridiculous,” he said.
It’s a gag that Bombicino and fellow ukulele player junior Connor Franklin aim to share with other students. They have played their original mash-ups at Voicestream concerts, since both are members of the
college’s coed a cappella group, and late at night at weekend parties. Senior Danielle Hendrickson said the duo’s performance at the Block IV Voicestream concert last May was a pleasant surprise.
“It was very unexpected, and I was pretty impressed,” she said. “It’s a really strange addition, but it sounds adorable.”
Bombicino first picked up the ukulele in high school in order to teach an actor in a play he directed and met Franklin through Voicestream in 2008. Franklin, who is known for performing barefoot, received his baritone ukulele as a Christmas gift from a relative (“I think by mistake,” he said). He also plays the guitar and the piano but said he’s partial to the ukulele.
“It’s a lot of fun to perform with because you can focus more on your performance,” he said. “There’s two less strings to worry about than if you’re playing a guitar.”
During performances Bombicino and Franklin strum away on their ukuleles, each singing a different pop song while managing to stay in sync without throwing the other off. The result is an offbeat and funny musical performance.
Because the ukulele is seen as more of a humorous instrument, its credibility is always questioned. Both Franklin and Bombicino agree that while there is potential to be taken seriously with a ukulele, like famous Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, there is also a tonal quality inherent to the ukulele that makes legitimacy difficult outside of Hawaii, where the instrument is used for traditional island ceremonies and rituals.
“There is an element of difficulty in being serious when you do have the ‘rinky-dinky-dink’ of the ukulele because, try as hard as you can, it’s very hard to get the ‘rinky-dink’ out of the ukulele,” Bombicino said.
Sophomore Lena Weinstein, who also plays the ukulele, said it has an image that is different from many other more conventional instruments.
“The ukulele is sometimes passed off as a comedy instrument,” she said. “But there’s definitely a chance to be a serious musician.”
Weinstein said Franklin and Bombicino have inspired her to lighten up the lyrics and tone of the songs that she writes for her band, The Butterbeer Experience.
“I have this reputation for writing really serious, depressing songs, and they [Bombicino and Franklin] can just take the most stupid pop songs ever and make them hysterical and worth listening to,” she said.
Bombicino and Franklin said they plan to jam with other Ithaca ukulele players like Weinstein and to find more diverse instrumentalists, like mandolin players, to collaborate with. Both plan to begin writing their own ukulele music and eventually make a master mix of Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Paramore’s “Misery Business,” Miley Cyrus’ “See You Again” and “Dragostea Din Tea” — otherwise known as “The Numa Numa Song” — which could all be transposed to the same key for a seamless transition from one song to the next. Bombicino and Franklin hope the music will be as popular here as it is abroad.
“In England, there is a group of people who do this very seriously called the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and it’s very well-received over there,” Bombicino said. “The question is, how would it translate in the U.S.?”