BAY COUNTY – London Moore is a fifth grader who dreams of playing professional football. The tall and muscular youngster knows it’s a long shot, so he thinks a career in music could be a good backup.
That’s why you find Moore holding a small ukulele in his Callaway Elementary School classroom, strumming Hawaiian tunes with a dozen other members of the school’s ukulele club.
Across the Hathaway Bridge at the Panama City Beach Senior Center, Jody Wood-Putnam is on the mic with a small Fender amplifier pumping out more Hawaiian tunes to a room full of 30 locals and snowbirds. They also play the ukulele.
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At Alice’s on Bayview, across the bridge, the Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews is a regular performer that throngs the quaint little restaurant by the bay. The orchestra has been around since 2014. They are a non-profit and use the money they bring in to buy ukuleles that they send to elementary schools in Bay County.
At Callaway Elementary, London Moore strums one of the orchestra’s donated ukuleles.
Northwest Florida Ukulele Community
In this close-knit ukulele world, the circle of life is strong and growing stronger.
The instrument originated in Europe but began its road to fame when it was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants in 1879. The natives were so impressed with the instrument that they called it “ukulele”. which means “jumping flea”.
The Hawaiian sound has since been linked to the ukulele. If you doubt the popularity of the instrument, check out Israel “IZ” Kamakawiwaole and his ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on YouTube. The song was recorded almost 30 years ago, but last year it surpassed one billion views on the video streaming site. You heard right, a billion.
Callaway Elementary students are “in tune”
In Callaway Elementary School’s music classroom, teacher Julie Johnson goes from student to student to make sure all the ukuleles are in tune. The students know how to tune them and do it themselves.
“I can’t stand it when they’re out of tune,” she said.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is also one of her students’ favorites that she will tell you about. Johnson has been using ukuleles in her classroom for four years. She used to rely on the classical recorder to introduce students to music, but with the pandemic, recorders have taken a back seat for sanitary reasons and the ukulele has spun in front of the class.
“Students have more fun with ukuleles,” she smiles. “And parents have more fun listening to the ukulele.”
Her students strive to learn enough songs to perform at an upcoming school music festival and a show for their parents.
Johnson keeps his arsenal of ukuleles hanging in small wooden racks. A guitar hangs on the wall, drums and keyboards are nearby.
London says it was pretty easy to learn to play the ukulele. And what do his footballing friends think?
“They think it’s pretty cool,” he said. “Some of them laugh at me but I know they’re just jealous.”
Beach Senior Center ‘BUMS’ having fun
At the senior center, Wood-Putnam works with a batch of newbies every Friday at 12:30 p.m. and a larger group of regulars at 1 p.m.
“We always suggest newbies to stay for the regular group so they can play with them,” she said.
Regulars call themselves the Beach Ukulele Musical Society, or BUMS for short. Wood-Putnam said the group had been together for five or six years. She joined in 2017 after retiring from working at the naval base for 33 years.
“I retired and started playing the ukulele and fell in love with it,” she said.
The BUMS play for over an hour, incorporating kazoos, drums, harmonica and train whistle into a variety of songs. The group covers songs beyond the Hawaiian classics like “Rocky Top”, “Ring of Fire” and “Surfin’ USA”. They have three plastic filing boxes full of music selections to choose from as well as online libraries. They begin with “When the Saints Go Marching In”, paying homage to Mardi Gras.
Wood-Putnam will tell you that most of the band members are non-musicians.
“That’s what’s really cool about the band. It brought together people from all walks of life. I was a physicist, we have a judge, a lawyer and an engineer. All kinds of people play together with this little musical instrument,” she said.
The group judge is Laura Roesch. She served as a Bay County judge for 15 years before retiring in 2016. Like many who play with BUMS, Roesch also plays with the Ukulele Orchestra of St. Andrews which shortened its name to UOSA.
At the senior center, Roesch is in the middle of the room playing drums and wearing a shirt that reads “Dogs + Ukuleles = Happy.” She has been playing drums for over 50 years but also plays ukulele in both bands.
“I’ve always been interested in string instruments,” she says. When friends started the orchestra in 2014, Roesch found herself on Harrison Avenue where the band was playing Christmas carols and she jumped in to play. “And I’ve been playing ever since.”
“The ukulele movement is a phenomenon of happiness, that’s it”, Roesch will tell you emphatically.
She says it’s a great way to have fun and engage with other people.
“If you can learn three or four chords, you can play together. It’s four strings. It’s easy on the fingers, it’s just fun!
St. Andrew’s Band is not your typical orchestra
The UOSA group meets Wednesday nights at the Bay District School’s Nelson Building on Balboa Avenue. They start at 6 p.m. and welcome new members.
Roesch says both groups are very supportive, regardless of your skill level.
“It’s so fun to watch someone who is very shy, quiet and shy learn a C chord, an F chord and a G chord and they go on the errands. They can play with us,” she said.
In a not-so-serious tone, Roesch will tell you about a condition called UAS and how anyone who has been playing the ukulele for a while will most likely suffer from it.
“It’s ukulele acquisition syndrome,” she laughs. “I’m probably one of the worst. If you don’t know how many ukuleles you have, then you probably don’t have enough.
So how many does she have?
“I really don’t know,” she remarked. “Somewhere between 15 and 20, but I haven’t counted lately. They are just beautiful instruments.
Roesch says you can buy one that’s really, really expensive, or spend $50 or $75 and still get the best of times.
“It’s the happiest of instruments”, proudly underlines Roesch.
“I mean, have you ever seen a grumpy ukulele player?”