TACOMA – Who said the ukulele doesn’t rock? Not late, great Beatles guitarist George Harrison, who adored the diminutive instrument behind the scenes for decades, even as he changed rock history with his weapon of choice. Not Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, who has incorporated the uke into the band’s sound for the better part of a decade and reportedly recorded an entire as-yet-unreleased ukulele album.
Equally enthusiastic about the ukulele are the members of Tacoma ukulele club WASSUP. The acronym stands for the Washington Association of South Sound Ukulele Players.
The group has about 40 members on its mailing list, according to organizer Tom Brooks, though a fraction of those attend the meetings, which are held at the Sixth Avenue floral shop and cafe, A Rhapsody in Bloom. The first Tuesday of each month is for beginners, while the more experienced players get together and jam on the last.
Brooks, a longtime jazz musician, started dabbling in ukulele about four years ago.
“A friend of mine gave me a ukulele ’cause it was easy to travel with,” he said. “I’d sit in a hotel for a week in some town with nothin’ much to do, and I could goof around with that thing and really came to take it as a serious instrument and really enjoyed it.”
Eventually, he became involved with the Seattle Ukulele Players Association after seeing one of the group’s bumper stickers.
WASSUP began meeting at A Rhapsody in Bloom in the spring.
“There’s people from all walks of life, so it’s fun and all ages, too,” said Llyle Morgan, who was active in SUPA when she lived in Seattle but now makes the drive north from Steamboat Island, near Olympia, to the WASSUP meetings.
Group members give a variety of reasons, many of them partly pragmatic, for being drawn to Hawaii’s most popular musical export.
“I wanted a lightweight instrument that I could play with my friends,” Morgan said. “I have a wrist problem and don’t have enough strength in my fingers to play guitar. So it’s a small instrument that I can play. It was very accessible.”
Tatiana Nynuk recently attended her first WASSUP meeting. She’d taken ukulele lessons in Hawaii for a year and had been looking for a group since she was recently stationed at Fort Lewis.
“I always wanted to play guitar, but I have little, tiny hands,” Nynuk said. “And I got to Hawaii and found out it’s a serious, wonderful instrument. I found some artists that were just incredible on it.
“Everyone underestimates it, and it turns out it can do anything (a guitar can) and more.”
During most meetings, Ray Alonzo is one of the main guys demonstrating new chords and providing tips on how to get a little more “Hawaiian flavor” out of the instrument. The Lacey resident, who hails from the 50th state, started playing 50 years ago.
“The first song I learned was ‘Jesus Loves Me’ in church,” he said. “A lot of the kids picked it up and got intrigued with how it sounded.”
For him, the ukulele has been a family affair. When he started coming to the WASSUP meetings, he brought his son, Sean, who resisted learning the uke as a kid, when his tastes skewed more toward heavy-rock bands.
“It only took me 30 years to get into it,” Sean Alonzo said.
“Everywhere we went in the military, we would form a group,” Ray Alonzo said.
“He would play, my mom would teach hula. So a lot of the stuff I picked up because I was just there,” Sean Alonzo said. “But just recently, in the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to learn where I’m from, learn who I am.
“I have my daughter come, too,” he said. “It’s a good father-son bond. We’re brought together with the music. So now I’m trying to do the same thing with my daughter.”