Ukulele club brings Hawaiian sound to Seattle neighborhood


Ian Gwin

AP Art teacher Matthew Harkleroad and freshman Alden Scherrer watch security specialist Greg Tauffassau demonstrate a traditional Hawaiian song on the ukulele. The club meets in Harkleroad’s room SW110 Thursdays at 2:30 p.m.

By Ian Gwin, Ballard HS, Seattle

It’s a Thursday afternoon in Matthew Harkleroad’s art classroom SW110, and the air is filled with a droning cluster of notes rising and falling in small, leaning intervals. Greg Taufassau, school security guard and musician, plucks string by string up his ukulele, letting the notes resound across to the other uke’ players who listen with their hands at the top of their instruments.

“You know its ‘My Dog Has Fleas’ right?” Taufassau says, mentioning the mnemonic used to remember the scale the instrument is tuned to. Listening in is club president and freshman Alden Scherrer, who has been playing for about two years.

“It’s so light, you could just play it for fun,” said Scherrer. The small four-stringed, guitar-like instrument originated in Hawaii from Portuguese immigrants. Known for its bright strummed sound, the ukulele (roughly translated to Jumping Flea) reached the worldwide popularity it is known for today by the early 20th century.

In addition to the ukulele, Scherrer plays the guitar and piano. Both he and freshman Vaughn Immernahr joined the club mid-January, learning the instruments relatively easily. Immernahr has only been playing for three weeks, but plays with ease.

“I learn more outside of class” he said.

Harkleroad, the club adviser, has been playing the ukulele for almost a year with no prior instrumental experience. He started the club to learn and play the instrument with students and staff members interested in the instrument and Hawaiian culture. He says that he was attracted to the instrument as a beginner because it was easy to play; a statement with which most of the club agrees.

The Uke’, as it is nicknamed, is a straightforward and nearly universal instrument. Despite this, the club has only a few members, and Harkleroad hopes that as the year goes on more people can take part in it.

Taufassau hopes to play a traditional Hawaiian song celebrating the first train to the islands with the club at a school assembly to back up the Polynesian club. Born on Oahu, Taufassau has spent his whole life speaking and playing Hawaii’s culture, whether on the guitar, ukulele, drums, backing up Polynesian dancers, or fire dancing.
“I’m an entertainer,” he said. “In 1986 I competed in ‘Mr. Hula.’ It’s a competition for male dancers. You have to dance and recite genealogy.”

For doing this and more Taufassau won the Mr. Hula title, and is still recognized in his home country for it.  His accomplishments in the ‘70s helped revive the male-hula tradition in a renaissance of Hawaiian culture.

“[The Hawaiian] language was encouraged not to be spoken,” He said. “Our people had to learn English. It wasn’t until the ‘70s, when I was your age…when we brought it back.”

Annexed into the U.S. after a long history of imperial occupation, Hawaii and its rich culture are now celebrated by artists like Taufassau who tours nationally and plays regularly. Not only is Taufassau a certified hula dance teacher or “Kuma,” but also plays in a band, Leo Aloha (translated: “The Voice of Love”) which can be found on Facebook.

The club spends some time strumming through Hawaiian crooner and uke-player Brother Iz’s popular “What a Wonderful World/Over the Rainbow” medley. Taufassau is no stranger to Iz and his music.

“We group up together,” he said on seeing the musician. Taufassau remembers a time before Iz (now deceased) was world famous, and was just another local musician. “We crossed paths periodically…He married one of the girls in my neighborhood.”

Though some use chord charts to remember the song’s fingerings, the projection of the songs “changes” on the overhead help guide the group to play together.

Harkleroad, Scherrer, and Immanahr all play through the song, stopping now and again to work out the complex strumming patterns used on the original recording. They settle to play their own rhythms, and conclude the song on a jazzy strum with a smile on their faces.

The Ukulele club meets in Mr. Harkleroad’s room SW110 every Thursday from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.

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