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A Gathering To Sit, Strum And Spread the Ukulele Love

By Shearon Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

A showcase of multicolored ribbon and yarn leis, hula dolls with tassels, 100 percent Menehune coffee, tropical fruit and the sounds of folk music made the Annapolis church seem like the Hawaiian islands.

Scores of visitors bore name tags listing home towns in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and the Washington region. They were middle school teachers, lawyers, federal workers, college students and retirees of all shades.

And they came for one reason: They love the ukulele.

"We're all Hawaiians at heart," said Tom Penland, a pilot and manager for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The grounds of First Presbyterian Church and School were taken over this weekend for the fourth annual Mid-Atlantic Ukulele Invitational, organized by a growing community of ukulele enthusiasts who love the little instrument's happy sound.

Penland is married to a fourth-generation Hawaiian and is a past president of the Hawaii State Society of Washington, D.C. Its ukulele club, which performed yesterday, meets every Wednesday night at his Lake Barcroft home.

The event, whose acronym is MAUI, is organized by the Metropolitan Ukulele Association and features workshops, concerts, stalls for vendors and a cabaret.

The ukulele, the portable four-string sibling of the guitar, had its heyday in the 1920s and '30s and is undergoing a renaissance.

The Internet has helped solidify the movement and made it easier for ukulele lovers to find one another, said Don Peyton, an organizer of the event.

Dane Afman, an intelligence analyst from Silver Spring, bought a ukulele for the birthday of his girlfriend, Sandra Narva, and they came to the fete to learn more.

"We're big fans of old jazz from the '20s, and ukuleles were popular back then," Afman said. "We're beginners, and so we thought we'd come check it out."

The couple watched yesterday as a veteran ukulele couple, Gordon and Debi Velasco of Laurel, part of the group Hoaloha, showed onlookers strumming techniques and led them in Hawaiian songs.

"People ask me, 'Who's in the group?' " said Gordon Velasco, an architect and planner for the Army Corps of Engineers.

"And I always say, 'Whoever shows up,' because people have regular day jobs and we only turn native on the weekend."

The performance, which included songs about trains and a girl washing her hair, inspired Claire Flynn, 5, and brother Cooper Flynn, 10, to imitate the sounds and raise their hands to mimic the "toot toot."

Their parents, Stephen and Denise Flynn of Annapolis, already were indoctrinated.

Eight months ago, Denise Flynn decided that she wanted to join a Hawaiian dance class. The new activity prompted her husband, a guitarist and Justice Department maritime lawyer, to take on the ukulele.

"I always admired the culture and the stories they tell with the dances," Denise Flynn said. "So I decided, why not?"

Many young artists are taking the ukulele seriously, too.

Victoria Vox, 27, of Baltimore released her independent album "Victoria Vox and her Jumping Flea" this year.

Three years ago, she heard a recorded medley of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" by prominent Hawaiian artist IZ on the ukulele. Vox, a guitar player and songwriter, felt a connection.

The Wisconsin native now performs across the country.

"It's kind of a touchy subject with some Hawaiians because there are some who are really protective of the culture, and that is understandably so," she said.

That's why Vox, whose repertoire includes performances without the instrument, said it's important not to make light of the culture.

"I'm sure there are some people saying, 'Who is this white girl from Wisconsin playing the ukulele?' " Vox said. "So when a newbie like me comes in, it's good to have that backing and support from the ukulele community."

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