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Ukulele fever hits Sonoma

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Ukuleles are everywhere in Sonoma these days – from kids’ lessons at the library to adult strumming at Vintage House to accompanying hula at the Woman’s Club.

The popularity of the little four-stringed instrument has been surging for years – sales in the U.S. are said to have tripled since 2009. Petaluma-based Kala Instruments reports selling almost half a million ukuleles each year. Elementary school students across the county are learning how to play. It’s a staple in Presentation School’s music program and an elementary school in Novato has completely ditched the recorder in its music program in favor of the ukulele.

Israel Kamakawiwo’ole put the instrument back on the map nationally in the 1990s with his reggae inspired versions of “What a Wonderful World” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Pop stars like Eddie Vedder and Jack Johnson have recorded with them; singer Julia Nunes plays one on her delightful cover of “Build Me Up, Buttercup.” Beatles guitarist George Harrison was a noted ukulele practitioner; and in 2006 uke virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro had a massive YouTube hit with Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”

Ukulele music, and its cousin, slack key guitar music, got their start back in the 1800s. Before then, Hawaiian music had been mostly percussive and the “singing” was more like chanting. Dance had been the mainstay of traditional Polynesian musical expression. It wasn’t until Europeans started to visit the islands in the 19th century that Hawaiians took on a more familiar western singing style.

Popular history has it that guitars were brought to Hawaii by Mexican vaqueros, and that the Portuguese introduced an instrument called a “braguinha,” a precursor to the modern ukulele.

The ukulele is said to have started with a Portuguese man named Joao Fernandes, who wowed the locals with his dexterity while playing his braguinha. The instrument was dubbed “ukulele” translating to “jumping flea,” referring to Fernandes’s fast fingers.

In Sonoma Valley, ukulele lessons are taught at several locations. There are opportunities for beginners to whet their tropical appetites, while more advanced players have chances to improve, too.

The Sonoma Valley Regional Library occasionally holds beginning and next step ukulele lessons. Library manager Lisa Musgrove limits the popular classes to 20 people, “Only because that is all the ukuleles we have.” But anybody is welcome to bring their own instrument to the classes.

Musgrove described the first time the library offered lessons as “crazy packed” with ukulele learners.

The musician who teaches the classes at the library is Scott Gifford. A retired fifth and sixth grade teacher, he brings a natural enthusiasm of teaching to his classes.

“The ukulele is exponentially easier to play than a guitar,” says Gifford. “It’s more portable, and it’s way more fun.”

Gifford’s students always fall right into that fun. He relates that one day an adult student told him, “This is so easy, I tried for years in other classes, but you’ve made it click.”

Another location that has folks strumming is the Vintage House senior center. Alan Freeman teaches an ongoing class on Thursday afternoons, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Held in spacious Stone Hall, Freeman has a group of about 25 eager students.

Like thousands of others, Freeman picked up the uke while vacationing in Hawaii. After 50 years of guitar playing, the uke came pretty easy to him. He says he introduced his friends to his new toy, and they responded, “Show me a thing or two, show me how to do that.”

The next thing Freeman knew he was teaching classes at Vintage House.

Monthly gatherings at the Sonoma Woman’s Club feature local hula dancers, ukulele and slack key players. The musical portion of the sessions is hosted by Novato resident Del Medina. He encourages all players to attend and share in the aloha spirit. Of learning to play the ukulele, Medina says, “How hard can it be? Four strings, four fingers!”

Medina adds, “The instrument lends itself to friendly groups of players. It is very accessible, and very inexpensive, and you can sing with it.”

Local guitarist and ukulele student Gary Halter said the ukulele is the perfect instrument for group play.

“It is surprisingly easy to learn a few chords and be playing songs right away,” said Halter.

Perhaps a few Sonomans traveling to Hawaii for the holidays will bring home a ukulele or two – lending Sonoma’s varied musical flavor a bit more of the Aloha spirit.