Despite the bouncy chords, the island strums, the line of instruments, the sheets of notes and the flowing stream of voices echoing in this room, no one here is a musician.
It’s the laughing, always laughing, that gives them away.
Down two flights of stairs, through a pair of heavy doors and down a musty hallway in Kalispell’s ImagineIF Library, a couple handfuls of women are strumming their ukuleles in between fits of laughter at their twice monthly gathering here in the basement. They’re here for lots of reasons — friendship, music, “forestalling Alzheimer’s” — and brought together by the four-string tool in each of their hands.
None of these ladies claim to be particularly musically inclined, and in fact many said they had never picked up an instrument before taking Peggy Grafe’s beginner ukulele class at Flathead Valley Community College. When that class ended, the group had become so close, and so enamored with the ukulele, that they started meeting on a regular basis late last year.
“You go and you can’t stop going,” Denise Jenke said, with a laugh, of course.
Next semester, Jenke and several of the others will be back in school. They’ve signed up for Grafe’s intermediate class.
THE UKULELE has been having its moment in recent years, in part because the chipper, happy sounds it makes have inspired even some of the world’s preeminent musicians to give it a whirl. Eddie Vedder — yes, that Eddie Vedder — notched up a Grammy nomination in 2012 for his all-ukulele album “Ukulele Songs” and the National Association of Music Merchants reported a whopping 54 percent jump in ukulele sales in 2013, per The Atlantic.
But for Grafe, mentor to many of the valley’s fledgling ukulele players, it’s the ukulele’s accessibility that makes it so popular, especially for non-musicians.
“The best thing is I can take people that have told themselves ‘I can’t sing and I can’t play,’” Grafe said.
“And in 10 minutes they are playing a very simple song and they are singing with it and the joy on their faces is just amazing. And they just grow from there. They finally get some confidence.”
Ukuleles are four strings, two less than a guitar, and the thin neck makes it within reach, literally, for fingers and hands of all sizes. The cost, too, is as low as any instrument this side of a harmonica. At the strum-along at the library, the most affordable ukulele in the room was $29.95.
There’s another something about the ukulele that Grafe and her students also point to. The instruments roots trace back to Hawaii and the sound can’t help but evoke sunshine and beaches, a welcome respite for denizens of the mainland.
“They say you can’t play a sad song on a ukulele,” Grafe said. “It is a happy little instrument.”
There are four types of ukuleles — soprano, tenor, baritone and bass — and while some cost less than a tank of gas, others can range into the thousands dollars.
Some ukuleles also have their own special uses, like the plastic one Scout Crawford brought to the Tuesday library group. It’s perfect for taking along on a canoe or kayak trip and, she said, even fills in as a replacement oar if you happen to lose one.
WHEN SHE isn’t teaching, Grafe heads up a band of ukulele strummers that performs at nursing homes in the area.
The band, called Kaz-Uke-Eeeef because they mix in the ‘eeeef’ sound of the kazoo, plays at the BeeHive Homes of Kalispell monthly, and typically makes one other stop. The BeeHive has a focus on memory loss care and Grafe said the decision to play that particular home was deliberate.
“Music is the last thing that (Alzheimer’s patients) lose,” she said. “They sing the songs. They remember the tune.”
“We always start with a Patriotic medley,” Grafe added. “Then it kind of depends which facility we’re going to. Right now we’re probably doing songs from the 30s and 40s and for some we’re doing the 50s and 60s.
“We have maybe eight staple Hawaiian tunes and we maybe play one or two of them. We’re mostly playing old rock and roll, old swing. We do an Elvis song, a Beatles song, a country song, a Dean Martin song.”
Kaz-Uke-Eeeef is welcoming new members, who can contact Grafe at email@example.com for more information. Grafe also organizes a ukulele jam session, Uke-a-Spell, twice a month at Snappy Sport Senter.
All of the area’s groups, the library contingent included, are open to men and women of all ages and skill levels, although participants are expected to supply their own ukulele.
And be willing to laugh, at themselves, at each other, and the instrument in their hands.
In the dingy basement of the library on Tuesday, the gathered ukulele players — none of whom had ever met before taking Grafe’s class — were doing plenty of laughing. And, Jenke said, giving each other another benefit.
“We look younger since we started playing together,” she quipped, as the room burst out in laughter.
The next session at ImagineIF Library is May 2, from 1 to 3 p.m.
The next Uke-a-Spell jam session is April 28, also from 1 to 3 p.m.
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.