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Going along their 'merrie' way Richard Pena | Fri, Jun 25 2010 01:00 PM

There are many good things that come out of the Norman Park Center, the senior center over on F Street.

On any weekday it is a hive of activity. There is an active senior club that has periodic luncheons and potlucks, and there are classes nearly every day of the week.

There are many seniors who take advantage of the latter, attending many of the dances, for exercise or merely for fun, and there are others studying foreign languages for the same reason.

If that wasn't enough, the building is also the headquarters for Meals-on-Wheels, the organization that is responsible for feeding many of the community's seniors.

The center is also home to the Merrie Ukes.

Each Tuesday morning at about 10 o'clock, from the east end of the building, one can hear the sounds of strumming ukuleles and pleasant voices signaling the start of another session of a highly talented and professional-sounding group.

The Merrie Ukes was founded in early 2003 by a group of four local ukulele players who thought that it might be a good idea to have a musical group in the center.

The founder was John Porner, a Bonitan who, by the way, is still not only with the group but who is the unit's fearless leader.

Two others, Olivia Munoz and Ellie Fulks are also plank owners and are still very much active with the group.

In the ensuing years, the group, rather than remaining stagnant, has grown until it now numbers about 25 members.

Other instruments - only strings - have been been added; the unit boasts a couple of banjos, a mandolin, a bass and, if one can count them as musical instruments, rhythm spoons and a kazoo. In any event, all the instruments lend body to the songs selected, and the sounds emanating from the unit receive the plaudits of the audience.

The Merrie Ukes, it must be noted, have been mentioned a number of times in this space.

The reason for reprising them as subject matter is because in the coming weeks they are going to be rather busy with performing engagements at many local venues.

For example, the group will be headlining the program at the Veteran's Center on Monday, July 5. Since it is so close to Independence Day the program will include a few selections of the patriotic genre, along with some of the standards for which the unit is known.

In September the Merrie Ukes have two gigs (as they are known in show biz): one at the Congregation Church Fellowship Hall and one at the Sweetwater Women's Club.

For the past three years the Merrie Ukes have performed at the latter, a program that sort of ushers in a new year at the club, a positive way that allows the club members to look ahead at their programs in the ensuing months.

While it is true that ukulele playing is basically the knowledge of a few chords to accompany the singing of songs, in the case of the Merrie Ukes it has become much more than that. There are members of the group who are truly musicians, who make melodies on their instruments in addition to the chord playing. The resultant sweet sounds of songs, accompanied by expert strumming, are what meets with the listeners' approval.

To illustrate the power of the ukulele we might relate an incident involving the group's aforementioned leader, John Porner. Though retired, Porner still keeps his hand in dealing in ukuleles.

Sometime back he had a delivery of some instruments that took him to Orange County when he was stopped for a traffic infraction on a busy street near a shopping mall. At the mall the traffic officer explained whatever it was that he had done and he also noted the boxes of ukuleles in Porner's vehicle. When he asked what they were Porner, with no hesitation, pulled one out and with no further ado played and sang one chorus of "All of Me." The traffic officer and his partner were so impressed (or perhaps merely surprised) that they let him go with no citation. Which says a lot about what a few chords will do.

By the way, the Merrie Ukes do not charge for their gigs. If there had been funds in the kitty I wonder if they would have been responsible for their fearless leader's fine?

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