Walk around Homer and what do you see? On Saturday mornings at Friendship Terrace in the Homer Senior Center, from five to 12 people strum their ukuleles. At the Farmer’s Market, the Homer Ukulele Group Society — that’s HUGS for short — performs. In the window of Cornish Music on Pioneer Avenue, a rainbow of brightly colored ukuleles is displayed.
Heck, Homer’s former mayor and retired judge, James Hornaday, has even cut an album of ukulele tunes.
Ukulele mania has hit Homer.
This weekend it will be all-ukulele, all-the-time when teachers and performers Mele Fong and Richard Tom visit Homer from Maui for workshops and concerts on Friday and Sunday.
HUGS has a core group of about 10 regular players and a mailing list of about 25 others known to drop in from time to time. The group started when a few players got together to play at Etude Studio, said Michael Murray.
“People started saying, ‘Can we join?’ We made it open to anybody,” Murray said. “It got kind of crowded.”
HUGS now practices Saturday mornings in the lounge at Friendship Terrace, the assistant living apartments at Homer Senior Center. Residents often drop in to listen and sing along. To pay its rent, HUGS does a monthly concert at Friendship Center. For the past two summers they’ve played for motorhome caravans at the Heritage RV Park on the Spit, donating proceeds to the Homer Foundation.
The ukulele, a four-string acoustic instrument that looks like a baby guitar, came to Hawaii in 1879 when immigrants from Madeira, an island off Portugal, brought it to Hawaii, Fong said. When King Kalakaua took up the ukulele, the instrument caught on with Hawaiians and has come to be associated with Hawaiian culture ever since.
Two members of HUGS, Marilyn Kirkham and Doug VanPatten, took lessons from Fong last winter while living on Maui for five months.
“We decided that would be a good chunk of time to explore music,” Kirkham said.
It was through them that Fong heard of Homer and the local ukulele group and asked to visit and do workshops and concerts. Bunnell Street Arts Center and the Homer Council on the Arts set up the weekend of events in a joint venture.
Kirkham had learned to play the ukulele earlier when she wanted to play sing-along songs with her mother when visiting her in Oregon. In Maui, she and VanPatten took classes every Monday night with Fong. Neither of them had formal musical training.
“I just set a goal for myself. I wanted to try a musical instrument,” VanPatten said. “It just seemed like a good thing to keep your mind busy and try to connect your mind and your fingers and play some music.”
Fong turned out to be a great teacher, Kirkham said,
“She’s got a real old-school professional style, which was good for us,” she said. “I just tried to glom on to what was going on.”
Fong teaches in the Hawaiian oral tradition. Students don’t need to know how to read music, she said.
“The old Hawaiian method is watch, listen, play, meaning you have your elders who know how to play,” Fong said. “You watch how they play. You listen to how they play and then you try it and that’s how you learn.”
With its simplicity, the ukulele doesn’t take long to learn. In an hour’s instruction, someone can pick up a few basic chords and start playing.
“You can sound halfway decent with some basic knowledge and from there you can get as complex as you want to,” Fong said.
In an introductory class on Saturday morning, “Ukulele Foundations,” she’ll talk about the history of the instrument and give some basic lessons on how to hold it and play it.
“I can teach people who have never seen a note at all,” she said. “You don’t need a lot. You just need to understand how it works.”
Ukulele has two main styles, Fong said: the instrumental style of Jake Shimabukoru, the young ukulele player who has almost single-handedly popularized the ukulele, and the strumming style that Fong teaches.
In the strumming style, the ukulele becomes background to singing.
“We are singers first and players second,” Fong said. “We use the instrument to interpret how we’re hearing the rhythm.”
In their concerts, the Hawaiian Serenaders will perform traditional Hawaiian style ukulele on Friday and then a mixed plate of pop, jazz and Hawaiian favorites on Sunday.
So why has the ukulele become so popular not just in Homer but around the world? Part of it is the ease of learning and playing. Part of it is the affordability — and portability — of the instruments. At Cornish Music in Homer, Diamond Head ukuleles go for $50. Murray said Tom Parse of Far North Ukuleles Alaska, a master ukulele maker in Fairbanks, makes beautiful instruments for $1,000. They come in soprano, concert, baritone and bass sizes and tunings. There’s even a banjolele, a banjo-ukulele combination.
Murray, who now has eight ukuleles, said they’re easy to travel with. When he travels, security agents always want to open up his ukulele case, and not because they’re inspecting it closer, he said.
“They’re looking at it as an instrument,” Murray said. “In that sense, it’s an ice breaker.”
“The beauty of the uke is you can stuff one in a little daypack and take it on the airplane and play on the beach somewhere,” VanPatten said.
Most of all, the ukulele is a happy instrument, Fong said.
“You don’t play sad songs,” she said. “It’s a happy thing to do and it’s fun, because it’s portable and easy to play. For all those reasons, it’s just great.”
Kirkham said this will be the first time the Homer ukulele group has had workshops and instruction. She’s not sure what the group will get out of it.
“I think we’re going to push it to the next level, whether that’s a quarter step or a half step,” Kirkham said.
Fong said she’s ready for anything. She has visited Alaska before, but not Homer.
“Whatever happens, happens. I’m calling it my Alaska adventure,” she said. “What I’m thinking is going to happen is people are going to get hooked.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Homer ukulele weekend:
1-4 p.m.: Private and small group lessons
7 p.m.: The Hawaiian Serenaders, Ukulele Tour of the Hawaiian Islands, Homer Council on the Arts, $5 youth, $10 HCOA/Bunnell members, $15 general. Hawaiian attire suggested. Tickets on sale at HCOA or Bunnell.
8:45-9:45 a.m.: Ukulele Foundations workshop
11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.: Workshop I
3-5 p.m.: Workshop II
1-3 p.m.: Workshop III
5 p.m.: The Hawaiian Serenaders, “Ukulele Mixed Plate: Hawaiian, Pop and Jazz Favorites,” Bunnell Street Arts Center, $5 youth, $10 HCOA/Bunnell members, $15 general. Tickets on sale at HCOA or Bunnell.
9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.: Private and small group lessons
Workshop fee: $95 for seven hours or $20 for Saturday Ukulele Foundations class or $25 each workshop, space available.
Register online by Friday morning at ukulelemeleonmaui.com.