As a rehearsal stand in for Sycruse musician Zeke Leonard, I was handed a purple lanyard with a yellow “Z” name tag and a ukulele. From what I can tell, Zeke must have the happiest job in the world. Google him and you find photos of this Syracuse design faculty member in suspenders sporting a ukulele banjo.
The uke I have in my hands sports a neck reading “Salt City Found Object.” Under this title Zeke constructs and sells “cigar box guitars, banjos, canjos, diddley-bows, fiddles, and other noisemakers that fall together” as he tinkers in his shop. It is an emporium of instruments made from found objects. Recycled wood, cigar boxes, pie tins, and cake pans all coalesce into tin type music and unique melody makers. He even uses a glass bottleneck guitar slide.
The No. 43 ukulele I carry is featured on his website as a Mountain Uke. It was birthed from a major player in How to Lose a Mountain, a new work by Dance Exchange Artistic Director Cassie Meador, which premiers in March. The piece features a Wm. Gaehle and Co. piano, dismantled and rebuilt for the piece. Amidst the reconstruction, Zeke collected enough scrap wood to make two ukuleles, which now travel in recycled quilt cases with company members.
The mother piano is special in a multitude of ways. It is a rare model square grand built during a brief period leading up to the Civil War in which William Henry Gaehle was building pianos by himself. This man’s work is better known for the Baltimore pianos he built in conjunction with William Knabe. Francis Scott Key commissioned them to make a custom square grand piano. In 1854 Knabe took full reign of the partnership and the name “Gaehle” was only painted on pianos in parlors for the next few years leading up to the Civil War. A square Gaehle piano found its way into the possession of Hannibal Hamlin, vice president to Abraham Lincoln. An estate sale in 2012 brought that very instrument into the hands of Dance Exchange (narrowly avoiding a bidding war with the Smithsonian).
Now this piano is played in atypical ways with non-traditional body parts. It even serves as a small proscenium stage for parts of the piece. Come learn more about the origins of this instrument at Dance Place March16th and 17th when Dance Exchange premiers How to Lose a Mountain.