The Mendocino Beacon
Local group shares passion for Ukelele
Like many community groups post-COVID, the Mendocino Coast Ukulele Group is reinventing itself. The pandemic shutdown state-wide impacted more than the local economy and public education. Multiple community groups no longer met and disbanded in the wake of public health priorities. The community had cocooned.
Infection rates dropped over time, and some groups ventured out to return to their meeting places. However, the inertia of the safe harbor at home was stronger than the social desire to connect with others. Attendance was low to the point of questioning whether the ukulele group should continue at all. Many participants had suffered from COVID and now lacked good health or the will to play in the group.
Before COVID the group met in Albion. Carol Becker, organizer, and spokesperson for the group, said that about six or seven people now regularly attend out of a total of fifteen members. She would like to see the group expand as a new off-shoot of the Pre-COVID one. First, she needed to find a place to meet. Albion seemed too far to travel for the remaining members.
The ukulele group now meets in a large, sunny room at the Redwood Senior Center in Fort Bragg. There is plenty of space for chairs, musical stands, stacks of sheet music, and instrument cases. “Basically,” said Becker, “we get together for laughs. It’s a very laidback group.”
The ages of the members range from the 40s to the 70s, but Becker doesn’t think this demographic should discourage younger people from joining. She admits that the group’s musical songbook goes no farther than the 1980s, but she explains that this limitation on more recent songs is due to copyright fees on the sheet music. The problem is more of how to get it rather than do they want it.
Requirements for joining the group are few since a new member does not have to know how to read music. What is necessary is a ukulele, an instrument that ranges from soprano to bass. Becker described the other expectations. “You have to have the desire to learn some basic chords. You don’t need to have a knowledge of chords but do need a level of patience.”
The group relies on the chord method but has had members who read music and would play all the tune’s notes. She added that the members would be willing to assist newcomers after the session and teach proper strumming techniques. Some members are clued into today’s popular genres although they acknowledged that transposing rap to the ukulele can be daunting. They commented that they had enjoyed Bad Bunny’s performance at the recent Grammy awards.
Ranging from soprano to bass, the ukulele is an instrument most people associate with Hawaiian music. A ukulele generally has four strings, but others have six or eight to increase the strumming volume. The instrument is a member of the lute family and is a variation of the Portuguese cavaquinho, similar to a small guitar.
In the 1880s Portuguese immigrants arrived in Hawaii with their music and instruments. Locals raved about the street concerts performed by the three Portuguese cabinet makers who had just arrived from Madeira. Hawaiian royalty quickly embraced the instrument as their own cultural hallmark. In the United States, the ukulele became the hit of the Jazz Age.
Interest flagged until Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, with his reggae renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World,” rose on the song charts in 1993. YouTube also built a fan base for the instrument with the video of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
For the rest of this month, Becker says the group is working on developing a website and collecting sheet music to create books for the group’s use. Right now, said Becker, “I’m just getting the word out that we exist.” March is her projected starting point for new members.
The Mendocino Coast Ukulele Group meets Wednesday from 3:00 PM to 4:30 PM at the Redwood Senior Center at 490 North Harold Street in Fort Bragg, next to Fort Bragg Middle School. If you are interested in joining the group, contact Carol Becker at email@example.com.