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Striking the right chord

Milwaukie Center's ukulele jam sessions string together musicians who love 'social instrument'
by: ellen Spitaleri Monica Mumper, center, and sisters Laraine and Carol LaTourette, from left, sing and strum through a rendition of “Kumbaya” at the Milwaukie Center.

They call themselves McTug, which stands for the Milwaukie Center Thursday Ukulele Group. But they might as well call themselves McFun, because the joy of playing is front and center when this group meets.

The four-stringed instrument gets a lot of love from the McTuggers.

'It is such a happy instrument - a wonderful instrument,' said Oregon City resident Monica Mumper, while Phyllis Crain added, 'You can't be sad and play the uke.'

Crain is one of three women who began meeting last summer to play ukuleles after their Tai Chi class at the Milwaukie Center. Crain, Suzanne Williams and Claire Ishii-Smith played every Friday at noon, on an outdoor patio at the center, and they soon drew the attention of passersby.

'People came over and said, 'I've got a uke in the attic.' And I said, 'Get it down and come join us,' ' Crain said.

Then Tina Johnson, recreation coordinator at the Milwaukie Center, suggested that the women start a ukulele jam group. Swelling music please, maestro: McTug was born.

The first meeting was Thursday, Nov. 17, at 9:30 a.m., and Crain said she was amazed when 17 people showed up. Support has remained strong, with a core group of at least 15 people meeting every week.

Crain said the group welcomes all ages and all levels of expertise, and admits that she is very much a beginner.

'I've never played an instrument so I had to start from scratch,' Crain said. 'We are perfectly happy to have people with no experience, and you don't have to know how to read music.'

There are usually several ukuleles available to borrow during the jam sessions, she added.

Milwaukie resident Sherri Campbell has been coming to the jam since it started, and she said the group has been playing mostly simple tunes, some traditional Hawaiian music and some holiday songs.

Interest in the ukulele is 'just huge,' Campbell said, noting that the instrument is easy to play and melodic.

'You learn a lot from playing the uke, it is inexpensive to start and it is fun. The uke is also a social instrument. I don't like to play and sing by myself, so to sing and play with others is perfect,' she said.

She added that she recently met a woman at a ukulele camp who had a stroke.

'She told me this has brought her back - she can get her fingers and her brain going again,' Campbell said.

Chuck Lawson, one of a couple of men in McTug, said he has been playing the uke for 60 years.

'I like it partly because I like music from quite a ways back, like the 1930s, and that fits well with the uke, and a group of ukuleles together makes a very nice sound,' he said.

Crain noted that so far the group has brought in two instructors, Marianne Brogan, who regularly teaches at Artichoke Music in Southeast Portland, and Sally Smith, who will offer a ukulele class at the Milwaukie Center on Wednesdays, starting on Jan. 25.

'About three months ago we interviewed a woman who wanted to start a dulcimer class at the Milwaukie Center. She said that she also taught ukulele, so we decided to offer both classes. She did a uke workshop in October at the Milwaukie Center which was sold out. The instrument has become quite popular,' Johnson said.

Many of the uke players at the center also attend monthly gatherings of the Portland Ukulele Association, which usually meets on the second Sunday of each month from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m.

'They usually have 30 to 70 people; it is so much fun when you have that many ukes, and I sound so much better,' Crain said.

She added, 'If we could have anywhere close to that number in the jam group it would be great fun - we would love to have more people come and join us. The more the merrier.'