The twangy sounds of a vintage Ditson ukulele come gently wafting though the house as we climb the narrow, steep stairs to the top floor. The house is in Sint-Niklaas, Belgium, and it’s the home of ukulele player Frederik Goossens, otherwise known as Winin’ Boy.
Q: Frederik, when did you first start playing the ukulele?
W: I started out playing music as the bass player in a band playing old 20's tin pan alley tunes. Our singer had recently gotten himself a lovely new Martin uke. I was impressed and a few weeks later got one myself . Some time later I formed my own band called the ‘Left Hand Band’, since all of us were left-handed. We used to play all kinds of silly little instruments, from kazoos, toy pianos, nose whistles, harmonicas, melodicas, an old jazz tea-chest bass and everything. I played the uke with a pick back then until I met up with a flamenco guitarist who showed me a nice little triple strum technique. Now I rarely play the uke with a pick.
Q: What band do you currently play in?
W: These days I play with the Winin' Boys Band, a very haphazard combo, sometimes not playing for months on end and then doing three gigs in one day. But we have mucho fun!
Q: You’re one of the organizer’s of the Belgium Ukulele Festival?
W: We had the idea for a Belgian Ukulele Festival. Our drummer had a little folk club in Belgium and that's where we held our first ukefest. With the help of Dutch ex-patriot, Remco Houtman, aka ukulelezaza, it was a great success! Remco was the first player I met in Belgium that seemed to take the ukulele seriously and we spurred each other's enthusiasm to go ahead with this silly idea. Now, we're looking forward to our third Belgian Ukefest! Amazing!
Q: Is the ukulele becoming popular in Belgium?
W: Belgium still is a bit of a ukulele-free zone. Not many people play, although more and more seem to pick it up. Actually, Belgium as a country is a lot like the ukulele; very tiny, too silly for words, but lots of fun and full of surprises. And too much of it can cause a serious headache!
Q: Frederik, where did you get your Youtube name wininboy?
W: It was one of Jelly Roll Morton's nicknames. Although it’s pronounced ‘whining boy’, there are many explanations as to what it might mean. Any new suggestions are always welcome!
Q: You're a left-handed player. Why do you play the uke so fast and so loud?
W: I have developed a rather harsh and fast playing style from playing the uke in the streets of Ghent, where producing volume was always of utmost importance. I have to 'beat' my uke severely as I have to compete with other louder instruments in my band; guitar, banjo, accordion, double bass and jazz.
I restring my ukes left-handed, so the chords I play are the same as for right-handed people, except the other way round, if that makes sense? Moreover, like most ukers, I’m an autodidact, which might explain my rather unorthodox “upside down-inside out” strumming and fingering style and the fact that I am used to D-tuning, whereas most players I meet nowadays seem to use C-tuning.
Q: You have quite a large collection of Martin and Ditson ukuleles.
W: Yes, I have been collecting and studying vintage ukuleles now for several years. My absolute favorite ukes are the dreadnought Ditsons made by the Martin company in the 1910’s and 20’s. They have a thicker waist, sound marvelous to me, quite loud and balanced and they have the most beautiful design I've ever seen. There’s something about these wonderful old Ditsons that simply fascinates me!
Q: Do you prefer koa or mahogany ukuleles?
W: I always recommend an old Martin style 0 to a player. To me, they are the ultimate ukulele in design and sound. Yet I adore that curious golden glow of koa, that enigmatic way it mysteriously changes every time you see it. But a mahogany uke sounds pure 'ukulele' in my humble opinion. It has that twangy sound I love so much!
Q: You also own the 'holy grail' of ukes, the Martin 5K?
W: Yes, like with any vintage ukulele collector, the 5K was my ultimate goal. So I bought this worn old 5K on Ebay when I had the chance. I was afraid I was going to be disappointed with it. That the years of dreaming about a vintage 5K would end badly. Of course, there’s always that reality shock at first; the moment you think: “hey, it’s just another little ukulele”, but then it starts to build. It starts to grow on you. You can’t stop looking at it and feel good. My 5K has been played a lot over the years. The woman who once owned it was an entertainer at Lake Tahoe in America. Her name was Donna, so I named the 5K after her. I call it the 'Donna 5K'. It’s a very beautiful instrument and takes pride of place in my collection.
Q: Who are your ukulele heroes?
W: Well, anybody who makes my toes wiggle and my feet tapping, really. Since I’m a sucker for hot, old-time music, I prefer the 1920’s ukers. Of course there’s Roy Smeck. He could do such amazing things with a ukulele and I learned everything I know from his method book and through listening to his records. But also check out that guy Max Nesbitt, England’s very own Smeck and clearly the more effortlessly natural player. Or Jim and Bob, the “Genial Hawaiians”, whose version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a milestone in ukulele music. Or Bennie Nawahi. Boy, there were so very many ukers in 1920’s who played in that hot style that I’m trying to emulate. These days I am blown away by players like Craig Ventresco or Max De Bernardi, essentially virtuoso ragtime guitar players who show that there is still so very much to discover on the uke.
But in the end, ukuleles are meant to accompany voices, so I also admire Cliff Edwards - who had both an unorthodox playing style and voice - and Johnny Marvin, another quintessential ukulele crooner. And when it comes to great voices and pure ukulele fun, there’s nobody better than those two wonderful Scottish guys, (with whom the Winin’ Boys had the pleasure of playing a couple of times), Gus and Fin!
Listen to wininboy play 12th Street Rag with his band the Winin' Boys