UPDATE: Free ukulele lessons will now begin June 30, not June 23, as reported below.
WILDWOOD CREST – Friday nights are going to be Aloha Fridays all summer long at Sunrise Park in Wildwood Crest.
Ocean Outfitters, a local surf shop, beach supply store and boutique, hosts free ukulele lessons every Friday night from 7 to 8 p.m. beginning June 23 and running through Sept. 1.
Designated as “Aloha Fridays,” the owners, crew and volunteers at Ocean Outfitters show up to help guide young fingers with some of the basics of ukulele playing.
“We love going down to the pavilion,” said owner Jeff Walden, who answered the phone at the store.
He said his business partner, Dean Lyon, takes the lead on Aloha Fridays. The store, Walden said, sells ukuleles and they bring a selection of them to the park for people to try out. The focus is on the younger crowd and their small hands, for which the ukulele is particularly suited.
“There is grass, and people bring beach chairs and blankets, and we will teach two or three-chord songs. Our people walk around and help the kids with chords – it’s really adorable,” Walden said. “The whole thing is really neat.”
Walden said they had a young girl, Zoe Herishen, who started playing on the Ocean City Boardwalk years ago, putting out a tip jar. She was also a surfer, which seemed to be rather tied together.
Herishen said she started to learn guitar when she was 6, but the instrument was too big. Her music instructor recommended she try ukulele.
The ukulele, which is mostly associated with Hawaii, was developed in the 1880s and introduced to the islands by Portuguese immigrants. The name ukulele is from the Hawaiian language and the approximate translation is “jumping flea,” perhaps referring to the strumming motion.
The ukulele has been featured in popular music at various times but was repopularized by Hawaiian music legend Israel Kamakawiwo’ole with his song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.”
The song was originally recorded in 1988 in one take and is probably the artist’s most well-known song. It was used over the years in films, television programs, and commercials. During the week of Jan. 31, 2004, the song reached number 12 on Billboard’s Hot Digital Tracks chart.
In 2006, Jake Shimabukuro’s rendition of George Harrison’s, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” went viral on YouTube, and, as of September 2020, had received over 17 million views. His life and rise to fame have been recorded in a documentary titled, “Life on Four Strings,” a reference to the four nylon strings on a ukulele.
Lyon, of Ocean Outfitters, said he first wanted to bring ukuleles into the store because they seemed to fit in with the surfer motif. At the time, one of the store’s employees was a music teacher in the Clifton school district named Alyssa Dinapoli. When Lyon brought the ukuleles into the store, Dinapoli said, “Let’s teach ukulele.”
They started to give lessons at the store, and Lyon said he only started to develop an interest in playing the ukulele after bringing them into the store.
“I was not a stringed instrument player, but I had to start tuning them and that’s where I started,” he said.
Lyon said he started to watch videos to learn to play ukulele. Then they hired Herishen, who is now 16, and who is their principal ukulele teacher for Aloha Fridays.
He said Herishen is from Woodbridge and her parents have a summer house in the Crest. Herishen is a competitive surfer and skateboarder, and it was a surfing competition in Florida that brought her into contact with Kala, a manufacturer of ukuleles.
“They had set up a tent at the competition and I went over to talk to them, and they ended up making me an ambassador,” Herishen said.
When Covid restrictions came around, Ocean Outfitters could not hold ukulele gatherings in the store, so they decided to look for a community park where they could hold lessons outdoors. They approached the borough for permission to use a park for the free ukulele lessons.
“They were very welcoming,” Lyon said.
When Covid restrictions ended, they found that people preferred being outside, so they continued to hold the lessons in the park. When they started, they were giving lessons mainly to 10- to 12-year-old girls. One year, someone put an ad in the Herald, and they started to get a lot of people who were 60 and older.
“Sometimes 40 people would show up. It’s really cool having a wide range of people,” Lyon said.
For those interested in joining in or finding out more about Aloha Fridays, the first will be held June 23, from 7 to 8 p.m., at Sunrise Park, Rambler Road and Ocean Avenue, in Wildwood Crest.
The author, Christopher South, plays two tenor ukuleles – one traditional four-string and one eight-string model. Call him at 609-886-8600, ext. 128, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.