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Friday, January 15, 2021

Catching the musical BUG

Karen Folger plays the ukulele for her mother, Bert Folger, during a group jam session with the Bellingham Ukulele Group at St. James Presbyterian Church, Saturday, Jan. 2. Karen brings her mother to the ukulele sessions every month to help facilitate her long-lasting love of music. // Photo by Daniel Liddicoet
Karen Folger plays the ukulele for her mother, Bert Folger, during a group jam session with the Bellingham Ukulele Group at St. James Presbyterian Church, Saturday, Jan. 2. Karen brings her mother to the ukulele sessions every month to help facilitate her long-lasting love of music. // Photo by Daniel Liddicoet

A circle forms as people of all ages come together to compose a friendly, welcoming and musical environment. The gathered group shares a love of a small but mighty instrument — the ukulele. Their strums match one another, with each musician bringing  their own personal creativity to the circle.

“It’s kind of a smiling instrument, kind of a joyful instrument — it seems to make people feel that way,” said Brian Griffin describing the ukulele.

The Bellingham Ukulele Group, or BUG, is a collaborative music group comprised of players who are just beginning to those who are experienced.

At the monthly “bug jams,” a skilled member of the community will teach new players during the first hour and loaner instruments are provided for those who do not own a ukulele. Basic chords are taught, and those unfamiliar to the instrument can decide to stay for the remainder of the session and play with the rest of the group. Some members are even part of a special orchestra ensemble, which requires an audition.

Griffin is a member of BUG who builds ukuleles from his home. Building ukuleles has been a hobby for him ever since learning about the craft in Hawaii. He is typically able to make up to three ukuleles in a two-month period. Griffin is currently working on  his 79th ukulele, he said.

“It’s a very informal organization,” Griffin said, describing the atmosphere as pleasant, friendly and joyful.

Patrick Madsen, a Western alumnus who studied art education, joined the group four years ago after playing the guitar for most of his life. He played guitar professionally in Los Angeles, he said.

Learning to play the ukulele has been compelling because it allowed him to continue being involved in music, Madsen said. After playing the guitar for 55 years, Madsen said music was starting to leave  his life as time passed. However, playing with BUG has brought music back.

He joined BUG after buying a ukulele from Griffin who mentioned the group to him.

He now leads the BUG Community Players, who perform once a month at various locations in Whatcom County, such as assisted-living homes.

The members meet for song circles on a monthly basis, where players sit together and play sheet music with chords.

BUG members meet monthly to learn the basics of the ukulele and to sing and jam together on Saturday, Jan. 2. // Photo by Daniel Liddicoet
BUG members meet monthly to learn the basics of the ukulele and to sing and jam together on Saturday, Jan. 2. // Photo by Daniel Liddicoet

“[BUG is] open to all instruments but is mainly uke oriented,” said Tom Hodge, a co-founder of the group. He said string instruments like the guitar and fiddle, or even horns come into play from time to time.

In 2007, Hodge co-founded BUG with Aryn and Ravyn Whitewolf, who were both involved in keeping the group running in its early years. Hodge began teaching music lessons in 2003 at Whatcom Community College and a majority of the original BUG members were his students, he said.

The first meeting took place at Hodge’s house. He said he remembers thinking only four or five people would show up. However, the first meeting welcomed 25 people and he realized a larger space would be needed.

Kris Shapiro, a resident of Port Townsend, Washington, said she enjoys BUG because of the eclectic environment. She said the Bellingham group is unique because of how progressive they are in what they play. She said she appreciates the fact that BUG plays both contemporary music and older music.

The ukulele is different from similar string instruments such as the guitar due to its petite structure. However, it is comparable to a bass guitar as it only has four strings but uses different tuning.

u·ku·le·le

ˌyo͞okəˈlālē/

noun

a small four-stringed guitar of Hawaiian origin from the late 19th century: literally meaning ‘jumping flea.’

Shapiro said she loves how the ukulele is light and portable. She said that because it has four strings, it is easy to play right away.

Shapiro said she loves how the ukulele is light and portable. She said that because it has four strings, it is easy to play right away.

Hodge said he thinks the instrument is popular because of its affordability, portability and how fun it is to play.

“It’s hard to play music on a uke and feel sad,” Hodge said as he laughed.

Griffin said he has seen remarkable growth in many of the players in the group, including himself.

“The ukulele can be a very simple instrument, or it can be as complex as you want to make it,” Griffin said.

Griffin said the group has allowed him to meet a variety of people that he would not have met otherwise. Shapiro, for example, said she met a woman who came down from Canada just to join the group.

In order to enjoy the ukulele, age is not an issue, Griffin said. In his opinion, one of the great things about BUG is that is only requires enthusiasm.

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