Big notes from a little instrument

Jim Ravoira loves his ukulele.

Jim Ravoira’s wife, Cheryl, likes to sew. After about five minutes of looking at fabric with her, Jim decided to leave the Summerville store, grab his ukulele and sit in a rocking chair outside People, Places and Quilts, where he strummed away while his wife continued her search for cloth.

That was a few years ago, and now that store is just one of the locations where the Ravoiras regularly entertain throughout the Lowcountry.

That’s right, Jim, Cheryl and a “gut” bucket musician, Lynn Michaelson, formed a group called The Charleston Hot Shots. At the heart of this group is the bouncy beat of the ukulele and Jim’s love of the instrument.

The Hot Shots have been performing for the past six years at events such as The Santee Canal Tractor Show and the Awendaw Green Barn Jam. They’re also regular entertainers at Cypress Gardens. OK, so maybe those venues won’t surface on many “Top 10 Places to See a Concert,” but Jim’s into this for the music, not the money.

What is it about the ukulele that makes people stop, listen and tap their feet? Maybe because it produces happy music.

And what a variety of music it can make! Once considered merely a vehicle for Hawaiian or island music, this little cousin of the guitar, when in the right hands, also can emit bluegrass, ragtime, country or hillbilly jazz.

Some are drawn to the ukulele because it’s cute. It also doesn’t require the same hand strength needed for a guitar.

Ravoira, 58, is an IT manager at a local school. By his own admission, he understands that “for people my age, the ukulele is dorky.”

Maybe he’s drawing more from his memory of Tiny Tim’s 1968 hit, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” If that’s your only frame of reference, a little amnesia might be in order. Younger people don’t have that image of the ukulele, neither does an older generation that remembers hearing its soothing chords in the Pacific islands.

So what does this mean for Jim and his ukulele in 2013? He and his group played 40 shows last year. The Hot Shots schedule about three appearances a month and Ravoira admits that they’re hardly overbooked. When they first started, there was one rule: Make it fun. It must still be like that. After one recent four-hour gig, he went home and played two more hours on his back porch.

One reason Jim especially appreciates the music he and his little uke create is that it’s not intrusive. Depending on the circumstances, ukulele music can the background as well as the centerpiece. He understands that often the music they make is not the main attraction but are there to add to the atmosphere.

Not every musician’s ego can accept those conditions.

Maybe that’s why the ukulele still is so endearing. It’s cute, unassuming, portable and not too pricey. Tough to be too pompous with those characteristics.

Next time you see Jim sitting outside the fabric store or at Cypress Gardens, keep in mind that he and his little ukulele buddy are happy if you stop and listen. But they’re even more willing to talk to you about the fun they’re having once the next song is finished.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or