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Ventura Lullaby

With a Ukulele, That Hanalei Moon Is Always Full

August 10, 2003|SONDRA FARRELL BAZROD

It's hard to do justice to "Tiny Bubbles," but the Ukulele Club of Ventura County is up to the job. The third Saturday of each month, you'll find members strumming and singing, often in Hawaiian, at the American Legion Hall in Oxnard. Muumuus and leis are de rigueur for the ladies, Aloha shirts and leis for the gents. Some wear hats. But all two dozen or so members love the tropical strains of the diminutive uke.

About 15 years ago Shirley Palmer put an ad in the paper and invited a few friends, who invited a few of their friends, to her Oxnard home to play the ukulele. At first the group had potlucks at members' homes, but as membership grew, they met for a couple of years at a steakhouse in Ventura. "It was a win-win situation, because the owner was getting business and we had a place to play out in the patio," says Palmer, who fell for the uke during the 1950s as a Navy wife in Virginia. "My husband bought me a ukulele, an LP [record] and [an instruction] book for my birthday. I worked on it every night and taught myself," she says. "And I loved it." Palmer, now 73, has witnessed more than one ukulele craze and notes that these are boom years for the uke. "It happens every so often and this time it's lasted for at least 13 years."

Legend has it that the Portuguese brought a small guitar to Hawaii in the late 1800s, which Hawaiians transformed into the ukulele. Ukes range in size from the small pieces introduced in about 1915 to the baritone uke, which is nearly as large as a tenor guitar (about 23 inches). Palmer plays a Martin tenor uke and owns custom instruments made of mahogany and mango, as well as a ukulele made from a cigar box.

Club meetings double as rehearsals for the group's frequent gigs, paying and otherwise. They have played at such events as the E Hula Mau hula and chant competition at UC Irvine and the Ventura County Fair as well as at weddings, luaus, parties and school events. There are referrals at the retirement community where Palmer, now widowed, lives in Port Hueneme. "We played a 90-year-old's party, and she recommended us to a friend who will be 100. They really know ukuleles and know the old songs."

Speaking of songs, the repertoire is traditional Hawaiian classics along with tiki-themed favorites such as "Tiny Bubbles" and "Pearly Shells," and early standards such as "Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue" and "Dark Town Strutters Ball." Lead singer Juanita Pendergrass was born on Kauai and has taught the club to sing in Hawaiian, and they always open with their theme song, "Meleana E." There are no dues and no officers. "Each person has [a turn] and they can do anything they want and play their own style," says Palmer. "With the ukulele you can sit on a couch in the evening and hold it like a baby. Beautiful music comes out, and it's a wonderful thing."

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