COLUMBIA — Stephen Andsagar picked up a ukulele for the first time during the 1980s and fell in love with the instrument.
Ashley Ernst started two years ago and now plays her ukulele every day. If she's in the kitchen waiting for water to boil, she says she picks it up and runs through a few tunes.
Ernst and Andsagar are on a mission to spread the ukulele love. They are among the founding members of the Ukulele Fight Club, a group of musicians with mixed experience that gets together monthly to sing and play together.
The inaugural meeting of the club — one of three Ukulele Fight Clubs in Missouri — was held in early March with nearly a dozen members.
Ukulele Fight Clubs have already taken root in St. Louis and Kansas City — the St. Louis club meets monthly at the Schnucks market on Manchester Road, and the Kansas City group meets every other Sunday at a pizza restaurant on Broadway.
Ernst saw the "Your City Here" tab on the Fight Club website and decided to add Columbia. The name has no particular meaning, she said, except to generate interest. The next meeting will be April 7 at Cafe Berlin.
At the March meeting, several players brought sheet music to share, everything from "Jambalaya" to "Let it Go" from the movie "Frozen." In between were Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley songs and other classics.
Within minutes, it sounded like they had been playing together for months. It takes just 10 to 15 minutes to learn a new song, they say, which is a big reason for the appeal.
"It is much simpler than the guitar and piano," said Ernst, a part-time reading teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Interparish School who teaches a ukulele group of 10 seventh- and eighth-graders.
"Immediately, with very little experience you can play a song and it sounds like a song."
A long, upbeat history
The ukulele is associated most often with Hawaii, where it emerged in the 1880s as a variation of a Portuguese instrument called "the machete."In Hawaiian, ukulele roughly translates as "jumping flea."
The instrument has four strings instead of six and a number of variations — soprano (called the standard), concert, tenor, baritone and bass.
The soprano is the smallest and has a brighter sound, Ernst said. The concert ukulele is a louder, larger soprano. The tenor has more volume, the baritone is the most similar to a guitar and the bass is the biggest, but still smaller than a guitar.
The simplest ukulele costs $35 at Barnhouse's Crazy Music Store.
"(Ukuleles) are affordable, social instruments, for all ages and just have a happy edge to them," said owner Bill Barnhouse.
He said he saw an increase in ukulele popularity eight to nine years ago after a 2006 Youtube video of Jake Shimabukuro playing a cover of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."
In the video, Shimabukuro strums the ukulele for a full six minutes, using fast, complicated strumming techniques. The 37-year-old Hawaiian musician has elevated the ukulele to an instrument suitable for jazz, folk, funk, pop, rock and classical music.
Shimabukuro has released several albums of original songs and covers. "Grand Ukulele," released in 2012, was recorded live with a 29-piece orchestra. In it, he includes his own songs — "Ukulele Five-O," "Gentlemandolin" and "Island Fever Blues" — as well as covers of "Fields of Gold," "Over the Rainbow" and "Rolling in the Deep."
Last May, PBS aired a one-hour documentary about him and his music called "Jake Shimabukuro: Life on Four Strings."
In 2011, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder released "Ukulele Songs," also an album of covers and original songs. In a review of the album, Rolling Stone's Anthony DeCurtis wrote:
"The ukulele doesn't allow for the widest range of expression, which makes it a challenging foil for Eddie Vedder, who never met a feeling he couldn't drive through a wall.
"But this uke-suffused album stands up because he adapts the instrument to his idiosyncratic needs."
More than a Fight Club
The Mighty MO Uke Fest is another gathering place for players and fans. Janelle Hoffmann and her husband, Jerry, started the ukefest four years ago in New Haven. Jerry Hoffmann, who owns Boat Paddle Ukulele Company, builds custom ukuleles. The company organizes and sponsors the festival.
This year's event will be July 10 to 13, again at Cedar Creek, a retreat center in New Haven. There are two headline musicians at the festival this year — Brook Adams of Seattle and the Flea Bitten Dogs of St. Louis.
For a concert on Saturday night, three festival players, voted tops by secret ballot, will take the stage in "Best of the Jam."
"The ukulele is just a great accompany instrument for people who love to sing," said Janelle Hoffmann, who switched from guitar to ukulele four years ago.
"What they find is that it gives them that avenue to express themselves in music where they didn't need years of lessons."
Cookie Hagan attended the festival last year and said at the end of the day everyone was one big family.
Hagan heads the Ukulele Ensemble with the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department, and her home is filled with ukuleles — she doesn't even know how many.
"It's an instrument that brings friendship," she said. "(The ukulele) is very inviting and very, very friendly."
Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.