By Dianna Troyer
A ukulele plucked from a toy box turned out to be priceless for Loretta Hansen.
“Years ago, my brother found a ukulele in a house he was renting and let the kids play with it,” recalls the 61-year-old Pocatello resident. “When he decided to have it re-strung, he found out it was worth well over $1,000.” It was so valuable because it was made by Martin, a company renowned for producing quality ukuleles since 1916.
“Not long after, he took it camping where I pretty much hijacked it for the weekend,” she says, laughing. “I’d taught myself guitar in high school, and my fingers seemed to remember what to do.”
Smitten with the instrument, she bought two when she returned home. “My brother still has the ukulele and has never thought about selling it.”
For Loretta, it was invaluable because it inspired her to start the Pocatello Ukulele Club. “I envisioned people of all ages getting together to play their ukuleles,” she says. For the past two years, she and friends have been meeting every other Wednesday to play. “We’re informal and strum and sing just for fun,” she says. “No one has to be perfect.” Ukuleles are becoming more popular nationwide as clubs are being formed, grants in schools pay for ukuleles and classes, and even sporting goods stores sell them for entertainment around a campfire.
In June, Loretta was invited to lead a new class at the Piano Gallery. “Playing a ukulele is great for so many reasons,” she says. “They have such a unique sound, are easy to play with only four strings, and are inexpensive. Prices begin around $50 and go up from there. You can buy them at a local music store.” The sound of a ukulele just makes a person smile, she says. “Our group likes all kinds of songs from Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off to Amazing Grace and classics like Somewhere Over the Rainbow, I’m Yours, and Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Playing is great for seniors, too, she points out. “It coordinates the brain and body, helps people socialize, and chases away any bad moods.” At family reunions and camping trips, ukuleles can always be heard. “I have five siblings, and four of us play,” she says. “I have several ukuleles, so my kids can play, too.”
The diminutive instrument was introduced to Hawaii in August 1879 when Portuguese immigrants from Madeira came to work on the sugar cane plantations. To celebrate their safe arrival in Honolulu Harbor, they sang folksongs and played their four-stringed machete de braga brought from their homeland. Enchanted, Hawaiians named it the ukulele (which means jumping flea) and adopted it as their national musical instrument. King David Kalakaua, a musician and composer, became an avid player and established it in the island culture.
In modern times, Tiny Tim made the ukulele famous with his 1968 novelty song Tiptoe Through the Tulips. A 1990 release of Israel Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole playing ukulele while singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow helped kindle its recent boom in popularity.
Loretta encourages people to learn to play. “It’s never too late to try new things. Anyone who wants to join us can text my cell phone at 208-766-3058,” she says. Information about buying, playing, and caring for a ukulele may be found at ukuguides.com.