Soundtrack Subterranea #6: Ukulele Underground
Evan Van Kouwenberg’s sound rests on a needle-width divide between two deeply unalike tones: that of his instrument — a ukulele strum as frail as the bones of a baby bird, and his voice — a soul that resonates with the sweeping weight of a forming hurricane.
It’s an odd combination, ukulele and soul covers, but the notes harmonize for Evan. “I can’t play guitar,” he says, chuckling. “I feel like you can play any song on an ukulele. It doesn’t matter. It’s all just chords, y’know?”
Tonight, he rocks back and forth in white denim and flannel, never quite keeping still as his shaggy hair flops around Union Square’s NQR stop to the beat Procol Harum’s “Boredom” and the White Stripes’ “Hotel Yerba.” He occasionally switches to older tunes and Beatles covers. He gets good response, several people approaching him within a few minutes to talk to him — it’s tough to corner him in a silent moment though, since his covers slur together into strings up to six, seven songs through. Sometimes travelers wait, some even skipping trains, but nonetheless more than a few have to settle for a passing “You sound great!” as they slip into a train’s closing doors. But he doesn’t always get positive response.
“Playing down here can be perilous,” he says. The other day, an older gentleman eyed Evan as he played, stopping just long enough to throw a gnarled insult his way. And tonight, a man with a leg brace, single crutch and a wrinkled face comes by and mumbles something incoherent.
“What’s, uh, what’s up?” Evan says, brows furrowed at the man swaying with half-open eyes.
“What is that?”
“It’s an ukulele.”
"It is for kid?"
“You like it?”
“Yeah,” Evan says. “I like it. It’s a fun instrument.”
“You sing? Give me one good song.”
“Okay, man, one good song. You like the Beatles?”
And with the gentle clearing of his throat, Evan jumps into a cover of “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Before the song is over, the man’s train comes and he hobbles away cawing something about Brighton Beach.
Most often, spectators stay silent, perhaps made shy by the forcefulness of his voice — but when Evan sings, you can hear the immediate chatter fall away. You can hear the platform relaxing, staring into the sound of Evan balancing on that divide between his instrument and his voice. Sometimes, though, when two trains slide in at the same time, their combined noise breaks the bird bone fragility of Evan’s ukulele. He closes his eyes and for just a split second, he goes quiet, but just as the spring sky outside turns clouds into the wide-awake humidity of an awakening New York, Evan’s voice erupts from the four nylon strings, unbroken.
10 Notes/ Hide
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