Ukuleles drawing crowds to plunk, strum, belt out songs in Turlock

03/08/2014 11:13 PM

03/08/2014 11:18 PM

An island instrument offering exercise for the fingers and a balm for the soul has gained a growing following in this inland area. Close to 100 strummers of all ages gather once a month at the Carnegie Arts Center to belt out their best on ukuleles.

“Look around you,” organizer Dan Murray said, standing in a packed room Saturday. “These people are smiling. I can’t think of any other instrument that brings people together like it.”

He and his wife, Kathy, started Uke Jamz, the Turlock gathering of many area ukulele groups, two years ago. “It started out as a need for seniors to have some wellness, a little therapy,” said Kathy Murray. The Murrays have developed arthritis work-a-rounds, with just holding the strings flat, and strumming silently as another option.

Learning the friendly little music maker takes about five minutes, they said. One chord is enough to start. Two and you’re considered intermediate. No clue? No problem, just sing louder.

The monthly get-together has no formal organization, no dues, no officers. Any age plucking any acoustic string instrument is welcome. Banjos and guitars make regular appearances. Nothing to play? The Murrays have loaners, thanks to grants from the Stanislaus County Senior Foundation.

“It’s kind of like doing yoga; it’s relaxing. It goes back to how we’d get around the piano with our grandmothers and we’d sing,” Kathy Murray said. “It’s good, wholesome fun. You feel light. It’s a happy place to be.”

Dick Domant and Laureen Cardoza of Merced came Saturday for inspiration and ideas for the group they have started in Merced. They discovered ukuleles after failed attempts at learning guitar. The uke, as practitioners call it, was easy to learn and easy to carry, they said.

“I like the community spirit. We had a blast when we got together. We just had so much fun. Two hours of playing and laughing and messing up,” Cardoza said.

Added Domant, “We’re a beginners group and we’re making music already.” After all, he added, “We’re both retired, and TV watching gets really old.”

For Angie Morales, a Uke Jamz faithful since it started, the ukulele brings back memories of growing up in Hawaii. “For me, it’s tied back to home,” she said. She also belongs to the Sunshine Coconuts, where she plays the ipu drum.

Sitting beside her, Debi Bow of Modesto said she didn’t know what a ukulele was until coming to the group, but now counts practices and the “gigs” at rest homes as an essential part of her week. “It makes your heart feel good,” Bow said. “It’s great therapy. We know when we come to practice we’re going to feel better at the end.”

“It’s magical,” Morales said.

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