Oct. 14 2009 12:00 AM

Ukulele lovers unite for monthly jams


The sounds of Hawaii floated up from the basement of Elderly Instruments on a Saturday morning last month, as the members of the Lansing Area Ukulele Group, or L.A.U.G.H. (the H is silent) plucked the strings of their ukuleles, singing in unison.

Dave Pasant, a self-described “ukeaholic” with a warm smile and red glasses worn low on his nose, guided the 25 players strumming in unison, as voices cooed “Darling, darling, stand by me.”

“Stan always thought the song was ‘Stan by Me,’” said the groups organizer, Ben Hassenger, joking about Elderly Instruments owner Stan Werbin. A roar of laughter followed.

The group’s first monthly meeting was an hour and a half of low pressure strumming and plucking for all ages and skill levels.

One woman had purchased a ukulele at a souvenir shop during a recent summer vacation. Pasant has been playing the ukulele for 10 years and is involved with two ukulele groups on the West Coast. He said the ukulele sounds the best when played by many people at once, even if they’re not all hitting the perfect notes. “Somehow, when we’re all playing together, it sounds really good,” he said.

Pasant had been interested in getting a ukulele group together the Lansing area for years, when Hassenger came to him with same the idea last summer after seeing the Langley Ukulele Ensemble from British Columbia play at a festival in Hawaii. Hassenger, who is known on the local music scene for his guitar work with Mystic Shake and Blue Jello, said the festival taught him how fun the ukulele could be. “They sang songs ranging from traditional standards to more recent pop tunes and accompanied themselves on ukuleles,” Hassenger said. “The director was a blast, the students seemed to have a great time, and I thought we should do something like that here.”

The ukulele is a Hawaiian subset of the guitar that is much smaller and has only four strings. It is also known as the “jumping flea.” Hassenger said he envisions the group as a way for people to not only get together and play the ukulele but to learn from each other and special guests. “I plan on having guests artists come to talk and teach about the ukulele, bring in ukulele builders to talk about their craft and have other ukulele-related activities at our meetings in addition to our learning of songs,” he said.

Hassenger’s eventual goal is to have a subset of the group play various community events and festivals and “bring the joy of the jumping flea to more people in the Mid-Michigan area and beyond.”

Peggy Hoffman, who came from Howell to play, said she had never had an outlet to play the ukulele in a group format before, and she was grateful for the opportunity.

Werbin, a friend of Hassenger’s who allowed the group to use the room at Elderly for the meeting, said it was a fun way for ukulele lovers to get together and enjoy their instruments.

Libby Dunbar, an Elderly employee, said workers are supposed to learn at least one song on every instrument, and this group was a fun way to learn.

The group played a variety of songs, from pop classics, like “Love Me Tender,” (after they played it, Hassenger said, “Elvis would have lived if he’d known we were gonna do that”) to Hawaiian songs, like “Little Brown Gal,” and a favorite of Hassenger’s called “Drop Baby Drop,” which he said is “the dumbest song ever, but it’s wonderful,” with lines like “I love you like a mango.”

Pasant said the best part of the group is people of all different skill levels getting together and hearing their music blend together. “You never have to stop learning,” he said. “You can play some basic chords in the first position or you can become a maestro.”

He led the group through the first few songs, showing them the proper way to strum and teaching them what different notations on the sheet music meant as they marked it up with arrows and chord names.

The group members left smiling, excited about the new songs in their repertoires and speculating if they would have to find a bigger room for October’s meeting.

Lansing Area Ukulele Group

monthly meeting: 10:30 a.m. – noon Saturday, Oct. 17 Elderly
Instruments, 1100 N. Washington St., Lansing FREE
www.elderly.com/events/ calendar