The Early Days of Langley Ukulele
The ukulele program got its start in the Langley School District during the 1970’s when then Music Supervisor, Rae Fetherstonhaugh consulted with J. Chalmers Doane and decided to incorporate ukulele as part of the music offerings in the Langley School District. The program was very popular and teachers were trained to teach uke in virtually every elementary school. To help motivate students, and to offer further opportunity to them “Honour Groups” were established. The best student performers auditioned to join the “Honour ‘A’ Group.” Though the program was very popular, as cuts began to occur to school budgets through the 1980’s and 1990’s teachers were no longer able to receive the training necessary from the school district. Through all of this the ukulele program has persisted in continues to be offered to hundreds of students in the Langley School District.
A New Era of Ukulele
In 1980, Peter Luongo joined the group as an assistant director and assumed the lead role shortly thereafter. He has been the group’s director for all, or part of every year since. His efforts and infectious personality contributed greatly to the ongoing popularity of the instrument in schools and to the recognition of the community of Langley as the “Ukulele Capital of Canada.”
The Langley Ukulele Ensemble’s composition changed quite dramatically over the next 33 years. In the early 1980’s it was a group of about 15 children aged 12 to 15 years. During the mid 1990’s it grew to 30 members with members ranging in age between 13 and 25 years. Between 2000 and the present the group limited its membership to between 20 and 25 members.
The ensemble’s evolution has seen constant improvement in the members’ level of accomplishment with the ukulele as well as with their vocal skills. There is no doubt that the group’s improvement is directly connected to the talents and dedication of a number of individuals. Alumni of the ensemble have been recognized as being among the finest ukulele performers in the world. Current musical director Elizabeth Zielke has been a featured soloists nationally and the Senior Ensemble Director, Paul Luongo has been a featured performer in Japan, Hawaii, and throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Of course our most famous ukulele alumnus is James Hill. James spent over 10 years as a member of the ensemble and is now considered among the finest ukulele performers in the world. He has literally travelled the world performing and has several recordings to his credit (find more at http://jameshillmusic.com/).
Every group has to start somewhere: The Langley Ukulele Ensemble began with performances in our community for seniors, school groups, and clubs. As their repertoire expanded and the skill level developed they received invitations to perform at music educators’ conferences and in communities through out Western Canada.
The ensemble’s first big break came in 1984/85 when the BC Television News reported on the story that the Langley Ensemble was off to Hawaii to share their ukulele skills with the Hawaiians. This was followed with stories in both major newspapers as well as numerous radio interviews.
In subsequent years radio personality, Rafe Mair invited members of the group to appear with him annually. We also received national and international television, newspaper, and radio exposure. The increased attention paid to the group outside of our community led to greater coverage in Langley where both local newspapers have regularly covered the achievements of the ensemble; and there have been many accomplishments.
The Langley Ukulele Ensemble’s regular visits to Hawaii are well documented: The group is well known in the Islands and attract large audiences during their annual performance tours to The Sheraton Waikiki Resort and at the Hawaii International Ukulele Festival (since 1994). The Ensemble’s travels have included performance tours nationally and internationally. They have toured across Canada to the Maritimes on 4 separate occasions and have been featured performers at the Stratford Summer Music Festival on 3 separate occasions. The group have also had many trips to the United States. They regularly visit Washington State, Oregon, and California. In addition, they have performed for Rotarians in Florida, San Antonio, and New Orleans, and at the New York Ukulele Festival in 2012. In 2004 the ensemble performed in Japan and future plans include tours to Australia and Europe.
A milestone in the LUA history occurred in September 2013 when Peter Luongo retired and turned over the directing responsibility to former ensemble member, his son Paul. Paul has successfully transitioned into his role and has continued the tradition of touring to Hawaii for the past two years. Under his direction the group also performed at the Stratford Summer Music Festival, at the Canadian National Exhibition, The Whistler Arts Council Festival, and a number of private and public performances throughout the community and region.
The Ensemble has been well supported by a number of organizations. The Province of British Columbia, the City and Township of Langley and the School District have been very gracious and have included the students in many local events. The Langley Times Newspaper has generously promoted the Ensemble and local Rotary Clubs, as well as Rotary International and Rotary clubs in Hawaii have been important, generous, and loyal partners for two decades. Empire Music and of course The Sheraton Waikiki Resort.
Developing the Next Generation
In recent years the Langley Ukulele Association has sponsored an annual Ukulele Camp each August. This program is intended as an entry-level into an ensemble. Current ensemble teachers and members of the senior ensemble provide the instruction and as many as 80 children aged 8 to 12 years participate with the hope of one day becoming members of the Langley Ukulele Ensemble.