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Fun with four strings

West Linn's Chuck Lawson has the WLACC ukulele group off to a strong start
by: VERN UYETAKE Chuck Lawson, left, in his usual Hawaiian shirt, leads the group through one the songs in its repertoire.

Despite the downpour outside, this winter West Linn locals can still experience that island feeling, as the West Linn Adult Community Center has established a ukulele group; one of its newest activities.

Chuck Lawson, the group's organizer, said he's been playing ukulele for about 60 years. He originally picked it up as a student at the University of California, Berkeley for a rendition of 'Old Suzanna' with its band, in which he played clarinet.

Lawson said he bought a ukulele for the performance that cost him less than $20; today, similar models have sold for about $500.

The ukulele sat largely untouched in Lawson's closet until after he was married and searching for a way to sing his children to sleep. Soon, he picked up the guitar and played that mostly until he retired in 1996, moving from Pasadena to San Clemente, Calif.

In San Clemente, he joined a ukulele group at the local adult community center, and the rest is history.

After moving to West Linn, Lawson said he approached the staff at the adult community center last November about starting a local ukulele group and that they were agreeable to the idea.

The group began meeting weekly Tuesdays at 2 p.m. in January.

'We're off to a good start,' Lawson said, adding that 12 or more participants showed up during the initial meetings.

He said most attendees have played ukulele in the past and are picking it back up again or have played other instruments and are looking to learn the ukulele as well.

Most have some experience with playing ukulele - or music in general - and Lawson recommended those 'starting from scratch' on the ukulele to take beginner lessons that are offered at the center.

For each meeting, participants bring their own instruments and Lawson writes up song sheets with the lyrics and the names of the chords to play.

One week, for example, the group played 'We Got Rain,' a piece written by an Oregon songwriter that expresses a local's view of the weather.

While the group is just starting, Lawson said he hopes that it will eventually build up enough of a reperorite that group members can just call out the names of the songs they want to play, similar to the ukulele group he left behind down in California.

Lawson said he can't think of a better word to describe the ukulele than 'fun.'

'It's fun to do, and once you get six or 12 together … the sound (gives off) that 'Hawaiian feeling,' he said.

'You can do a lot with six or seven chords.'

Lawson added that, because the ukulele has four strings compared to a guitar's six, its easier to play diminished or minor chords.

He said performing is not his aim, but he's already head attendees express interest about collaborating with the WLACC's Share Singers choir.

And he's not the only one working to spread this enthusiasm about ukuleles.

Lawson said there has been a recent resurgence in interest in the ukulele, particularly along the West Coast, which he credits to the efforts of a few individuals.

Jim Beloff, for one, has published music books for the ukulele for the past 15 years, including 'The Daily Ukulele,' an anthology of 365 songs. He's also organized festivals and an online 'Ukulele Hall of Fame,' Lawson said.

'He really went whole-hog … and created a world for ukuleles,' he said.

In Portland, Mary Ann Bogen has been a hub of ukulele activity, Lawson said, hosting workshops and establishing the Portland Ukulele Association - now in its 10th year - which meets monthly in East Portland. The group boasts between 50 and 60 members, along with links to other, smaller groups in the area.

However, Lawson said he's not aiming for similar numbers with his group at the WLACC.

'It's good to have groups that are really local,' he said, so that each participant can have a chance to be heard and play the songs they want to play.

The WLACC's ukulele group is free and open for all who are interested. No registration is required. The group meets in the center's dining room Tuesdays from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

Lawson even encouraged those who are on the fence about purchasing a ukulele to come and observe one of its sessions.

The center is located at 1180 Rosemont Road. For more information, call 503-557-4704.