Jeff Jardine

Fun Strummers uke it up

Whenever folks vacation in Hawaii, they seem to feel obligated to bring back a little something for their friends or relatives.

Usually, it's a box of chocolate-covered macadamia nuts available cheaper back home at any Trader Joe's (you only think they really brought it from Hawaii).

Or they'll bring you a pineapple. You can buy one that tastes just as good at your local grocery store.

The big spenders? They'll bring you a $29 ukulele. The problem is that most people strum it a few times, put it on a shelf somewhere and proceed to forget about it.

"Almost everybody has a ukulele lying around in a closet or in the attic somewhere," said Norm Nomof, a retired physician who began playing about six years ago. He lived at the time in Grass Valley, where a friend had organized a band called the Uku-Ladies. It had about a dozen members. Soon, men joined the band, Nomof among them.

"It just took off," he said. They played at convalescent homes, the Nevada County Fair and other events.

Nomof, 83, moved to Modesto in March to be near his son's family.

"I looked around and couldn't find a ukulele group," Nomof said. "So I decided to start one."

Thus, the Modesto Fun Strummers were born. They meet each Friday at 10 a.m. at the YMCA and play for an hour.

"It's not about being a musician," said Modesto's Lynn Hansen, Nomof's first recruit and the one who has recruited most of the other seven members. "Every time I finish (the weekly session), I feel good."

Hansen actually recruited Nomof first -- to judge a science fair at an elementary school.

Most folks would have started off by saying something like, "Nice to meet you." Nomof took a more direct approach.

"He said, 'Would you like to learn to play the ukulele?' " Hansen said.

For a few weeks, there were only the two of them: Nomof on his small tenor ukulele and Hansen on her banjo uke, also called a banjolele. It has a snare drum-like cover, giving the instrument a banjo-like sound.

Then Doris Scanlon joined. Now there are eight members, and two more women sat in with the group last week.

The ukulele is a relatively easy instrument to learn. Of the women in the band, only one had ever played before joining, yet the group can play dozens of songs -- some very well.

"I got this when I was in college," said Lorrie Freitas, holding a large baritone ukulele. "It cost me $20. A lot of us couldn't afford a guitar back then (in the 1960s)."

Some of the women have inexpensive ukes. Scanlon went that route, only to find that hers wasn't up to the challenge.

"The (laminated) neck separated," she said.

So while on a recent trip to Tennessee, she went to a Sam Ash Music store, a virtual warehouse of guitars and other musical instruments, and found a higher-quality tenor uke.

"I paid $130 for this one," she said. "It was really exciting to be in the heartland of music."

In Modesto, Buck's Music and the Guitar Center sell various types of ukuleles ranging from $39 to $229.

Guitars have always been the more popular stringed instruments, creating generations of would-be troubadours who try to mimic their favorite artists -- some very adeptly, others rather painfully.

Among professional entertainers, Arthur Godfrey became a TV icon by strumming his baritone uke while hosting a variety show in the 1950s. And remember when Tiny Tim falsetto'd his way through "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" on "Laugh-In" in 1968?

Classic stuff, indeed.

Nomof isn't thinking TV for his new group (although you can hear and see them on video on modbee.com).

He envisions performances similar to what he experienced in Grass Valley. That would include playing and singing at convalescent homes, fairs, schools and such.

"When we get better," he said.

Outdoor events? Probably not, at least until they get 25 or 30 members, he said. And he is looking for new members.

"The Fourth of July parade is not good for ukes," Nomof said. "There's not enough noise."

Even fewer than a dozen Fun Strummers can make a joyful noise, though. That's something you can't do with a box of macadamia nuts or a whole pineapple.

"The criteria," Hansen said, "is to sing loud, laugh along and play the ukulele."

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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