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Pleasanton Ukulele Band performing today at the Firehouse

Band incorporates solos, duets, trios, quartets in its performances

The lively little ukulele -- evocative of the Hawaiian islands and college kids in the 1920s -- will reach new heights locally when the Pleasanton Ukulele Band appears at the Firehouse Arts Center Sunday.

"In this area I have never seen an amateur ukulele group perform in a legitimate theater," said band director Leonard Cooper. "I am very excited about doing it."

Cooper has been a musician all his life. He majored in music with an emphasis in voice and minored in drama at San Jose State University, and he worked as a music specialist in the Dublin school district for 34 years until he retired in 2001.

The guitar was his primary instrument until about nine years ago, when he fell hard for the ukulele.

"I was pretty much into guitar, I used to teach guitar for Cal State Extension," Cooper recalled. "Then my wife and I were staying at a resort (in Hawaii) and they had a free ukulele lesson. I just loved it."

"The ukulele is an instrument of its own, with its own culture and its own background," said Cooper, who pronounces it the Hawaiian way -- "oo-kulele."

"It came to Hawaii around 1890," he said.

When Hawaiian sugar cane plantations recruited from Portugal, the workers often arrived toting guitars and something similar but with fewer strings that was called a machete, Cooper said. In Hawaii the smaller instrument caught on and became known as a ukulele, which means "jumping flea."

After his introduction to playing the ukulele in Hawaii, Cooper continued to enjoy it back home in Pleasanton. When Jams Music Store opened in Dublin and hosted a ukulele night in the fall of 2013, he attended.

"A lot of people showed up, and we had a wonderful time," Cooper said. "I said, 'When can we do this again?'"

He gathered contact information and decided to host a ukulele evening himself.

"Ten or 15 people showed up," he said. "For a year and a half, every Tuesday, we met in my house."

His wife Ilene also joined in the fun, and her sisters Fran and Roz. Now their granddaughter Sophie also plays.

Cooper began to teach ukulele for the city of Pleasanton, with five-week beginning and intermediate classes. When the Tuesday group of players outgrew his house, he had the idea to start a performance group.

"I said, let's call this an advanced masters class, and we can hold it at the Senior Center," Cooper said. "So the city of Pleasanton now sponsors the Pleasanton Ukulele Band."

Once someone has graduated from the second ukulele class, he or she is invited to join the masters class. Those who already play the ukulele can audition, but Cooper estimates that 80% of the members are his former students.

"The goal of this masters class is performance," he added. "Most of all the ukulele groups in the area get together, play songs and that's it. Our goal is performance, and we actually have rehearsals."

The ukulele players also sing along with the music.

"There are very few ukulele soloists in the world, 99% of us use the ukulele as an accompanying instrument -- it accompanies the voice," Cooper explained. "Many of those who join my group say they don't want to sing, but once they get into the group, everybody around them is singing and they want to sing."

The group also has some who just sing, as well as dancers and percussionists. Sometimes the Pleasanton Ukulele Band is joined by other dancers, from Island Spice Polynesian Dancers out of San Jose.

"We do not only Hawaiian songs, but all genres, '50s and '60s and some early '40s stuff," Cooper said.

Radio and early television star Arthur Godfrey brought the instrument into mainstream music and used it to play popular songs of the time, he noted.

Cooper said that a year and a half ago, the band put in its application to perform at the Northern California Ukulele Festival, which was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and one of the stipulations was they had to perform a number with the word "ukulele" in the title or lyrics.

"We didn't know that many songs that had ukulele so we submitted 'The Strumming Ukulele Song of Company B,' and they accepted that," Cooper said with a laugh. That song is now one of the band's standards.

Although some music may come from the Mainland, the band members wear Hawaiian shirts to perform.

"We tried having everyone wear the same one, but then we kept adding new members," Cooper said.

The Pleasanton Ukulele Band now incorporates solos, duets, trios and quartets into its performances to put on the very best show it can, performing often at senior residences, Alden Lane Nursery and at the 1st Wednesday Street Parties in Pleasanton. But the show at the Firehouse Arts Center will be something special.

"We've been working very hard," Cooper said. "I would love to have the theater filled up."

Ukulele fun

What: "With Just Four Strings," an afternoon featuring ukulele music, singing and hula dancers

Who: Pleasanton Ukulele Band

When: 2 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 30

Where: Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave.

Tickets: $10; call 931-4848 or visit www.firehousearts.org or the box office.

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