- Associated Press - Monday, June 9, 2014

LA CROSSE, Wis. (AP) - Before he picked up a ukulele, Bill Trubilowicz had no musical background other than a grade school encounter with the trombone.

A consultant from Charlevoix, Mich., overseeing the decommissioning of Dairyland Power’s nuclear plant in Genoa, Trubilowicz saw a newspaper notice for the CheezLand Uke Band.

He cut it out and stuck it on the wall.

“I gotta do this,” he said.

Finally he showed up at one of the Wednesday night jam sessions and said he was thinking about taking up the instrument.

Someone put one in his hand and within an hour he was making music.

Laura Moriarty joined the CheezLand band a couple of years ago after seeing the group on television.

“They are having too much fun,” she recalled. “They were just singing away for the pleasure of singing. I thought, ‘I’m going to join them.’”

She bought a ukulele and turned to YouTube for instructions. By her first club meeting, she knew a couple of chords.

“If a C was coming along I’d start strumming,” Moriarty said. “Then I’d drop out until the next C.”

Since its beginnings, the club has grown to about 140 members and has organized as a nonprofit organization with Trubilowicz as president. A select group of performers rehearses on Tuesdays, while about 20 people of all ages and abilities show up for the Wednesday sessions, the La Crosse Tribune reported (https://bit.ly/1uluz1b).

There are only two rules, Trubilowicz said: “No criticizing and no throwing fruit.”

Later this month, the club will host “Uke-A-Palooza,” a festival for anyone who plays the ukulele or is interested in learning.

The hope is it will be a reunion for some who’ve drifted away and a draw for others with an inkling to play.

“A lot of people have that little flame in their head: I’d like to be on stage playing,” he said. “And man this does it.”

A descendant of a Portuguese instrument known as the machete, the ukulele originated in Hawaii and enjoyed several periods of popularity, most recently after Tiny Tim rose to fame in the 1960s.

“Back in the ‘50s, the men would pick up their ukuleles at dinner parties,” said Ty Don, string technician for Leithold Music in La Crosse.

Small, inexpensive and easy to learn, the ukulele is one of the most accessible instruments.

“It’s so friendly, and it’s happy sounding,” said Catherine Parrish, who stocks more than 50 of the instruments at her Viroqua music store.

Her husband, Ted Parrish, had played Hawaiian music in Chicago, and when the couple opened their Viroqua store in 2010, they knew there was some interest in the instrument, but it only grew. Now they get customers from Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago looking for ukes.

“It became clear that this thing was happening with ukuleles,” Parrish said.

Ukuleles come in four sizes: soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. There are electric models and even one that mimics an electric bass guitar. Prices generally range from about $40 to $300.

Leithold now sells about three ukuleles for every guitar, said drum department manager Terry Nirva, who credits YouTube and the CheezLand Band for the surge in popularity.

“I knew there was a little bit of a buzz going on, but I had no idea that in this area it would take off like it did,” he said, noting “It’s quite uncommon to just have one.”

Don, his coworker, has at least a dozen.

“I have a thing,” he said. “A problem.”

Before his collection grew large enough that he could keep a ukulele in each state, Trubilowicz carried his instrument on the plane when he flew home to Michigan for the weekend.

He said people frequently asked about it and said they’d always wanted to play one.

Once, he said, a TSA agent asked him what was in the box. By the end of the exchange, Trubilowicz was playing him a tune.

Trubilowicz said CheezLand members don’t constrain themselves to traditional Hawaiian music or Tiny Tim tunes. They work up arrangements of Beatles songs and rock classics like “Wipeout” or Santana’s “Evil Ways.”

Mostly they care about having fun.

“It’s a great bunch of people. From all walks of life,” Moriarty said. “When you’re together, politics and nothing else really matters. You’re in the moment and enjoying song.”

___

Information from: La Crosse Tribune, https://www.lacrossetribune.com

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