- Associated Press - Saturday, April 9, 2016

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - When walking through the Ketchikan Public Library or down a hall of the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan Campus’ Robertson Building or even through a quiet residential neighborhood one evening, there is a chance you could hear the dulcet tone of an instrument more often associated with the Hawaiian Islands, not an island in Southeast Alaska.

However, a group of mostly local residents over the past year has gotten together to pluck out songs - ranging from “Blowin’ in the Wind” to “Bad Moon Rising” to “Hey Good Lookin’” and everything in between - on the ukulele. They are the Southeast Strummers.

Marlene Kuehl, Christie Willett and Kathy Paulson were the primary organizers of the group, which played at the Sam Pitcher Concert in December and is scheduled to play the Monthly Grind in April.

Kuehl, who splits her time between Ketchikan and the Lower 48, has played guitar, flute and piano in the past. She started playing the ukulele about two years ago.

“I’m a beginner … but I just try to keep a step ahead of everybody else,” Kuehl joked in February. “Somebody invited me to go to a ukulele jam down in (Bend) Oregon, and the first time I went I couldn’t even play one chord. But it was just so … people were really willing to have people join, whether they were beginners or advanced, and (they) made you feel welcome.”

Kuehl added that she likes the instrument’s portability and the fun of playing.

“Once you learn the basics, it’s pretty easy. That’s another good reason I did it,” she said.

The Bend Ukulele Group - BUGs - can attract as many as 50 members to some of its events. There are about 10 to 15 active members of Southeast Strummers, according to Kuehl.

Willett has been playing ukulele for about a year and a half, she said before a rehearsal.

“I just had kind of heard about it, kind of like pickleball is sweeping the nation with older people,” Willett said. “I was hearing rumors of ukulele, and I thought, ‘Well, I think that would be fun.’ We went to Hawaii (in 2014) for Christmas, and I got my ukulele there.”

Like Kuehl, Willett had some experience playing guitar when she was younger. The woman who sold Willett her ukulele also gave her a chord sheet.

“She had me play several chords (and) she said, ‘Ok, you’re good to go, you can play almost any song there is out there,’” Willett said.

While Willett didn’t know of any ukulele players in Ketchikan when she and Kuehl started playing, word spread and the idea of a ukulele group gained steam.

“We just started talking about it with friends, and ukuleles started coming out of closets,” Willett said. “I think there’s just a lot of closet places in Ketchikan. … There’s a lot of people in Ketchikan that play the ukulele, and it’s one of the easier string instruments because it only has four strings.”

While the ukulele can be a common instrument, Kuehl thinks that people are surprised when they find out there are ukulele clubs and ensembles both across the U.S. and in other countries.

“I just thought it would be a good thing for Ketchikan to have something that’s sort of accessible and fun to do and (to) maybe try to do what they’ve done in some other communities,” Kuehl said. “What’s kind of cool is if you go to another club, I mean you can go to different towns and just show up. (I thought) that would be kind of fun for Ketchikan, too.”

Songs, instruments, strummers

In addition to the experience of playing in a ukulele ensemble in Oregon, Kuehl also brought songs from the BUGs library to Southeast Strummers.

“(We play) a lot of old ‘70s, ‘60s songs that are very accessible,” Kuehl said. ” … A lot of them are old rock ‘n’ roll songs, but we can just about play anything. If somebody has a contemporary song, we’ll do that. We have some contemporary ones, too. Some of us actually played at the (First) Lutheran Church, so we did some spiritual (songs). We did that last fall.”

She added that the group might play sea shanties and other nautically inspired songs at the April Monthly Grind.

“It’s not going to be like a polished performance, it’s more of a sing along with the crowd,” Kuehl said.

“We’re on the poster, so we kind of have to do it,” Willett joked.

The performance at the church also helped to attract a new member - Biz Robbins - to the group.

“Right after that service - I go there - they asked a few of us if we wanted to join in,” Robbins said. “It was really quite an inspirational thing to watch all those women play and sing.”

While most of the players in Southeast Strummers use soprano ukuleles, there are some tenors and baritones as well.

“Someday maybe I’ll get a bass ukulele, because one of the things they say - we’ve taken some workshops - is it’s always good to have a beat going, and that’s probably the most important thing when you’re playing in a group,” Kuehl said.

She added that, while the ukulele is the group’s primary instrument, people who might only want to sing along are welcome to come to practices.

At least two strummers - in addition to Willett - bought their ukuleles in Hawaii.

One of them, Adell Bruns, has been playing for about six years.

“We play most of the things in the key of C, so there’s only like four chords at the most, and some of those chords are one-finger chords,” Bruns said.

“Those are good ones,” Willett added.

Lois “Lotis” Munch learned to play ukulele in 1963 in Hawaii before taking a hiatus and has several reasons - including being able to play the instrument again - that she enjoys being involved with Southeast Strummers.

“It’s nice camaraderie,” she said. “It’s fun to come here, everybody is really nice.”


Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com

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