Crystal Akins calls herself an “arts activist” — that is, someone who “activates art in the community.” It’s a title bestowed by a journalist and one that Akins has been earning since her teen years, when she worked with the Ethos Music Center in Portland. During that stint, she says, she founded the first intergenerational women’s choir in Oregon, with a goal of addressing sexism and ageism.
Recently, the Lincoln City music teacher founded the nonprofit Activate Arts. It was her response to the isolation of the pandemic, as well as a continuation of her goals of inclusion, community engagement, and creating access to the arts.
This fall, the nonprofit got a boost from the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition with a grant for $1,300. Akins plans to use it to buy an instrument that’s been played by everyone from Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole to Eddie Vedder to Tiny Tim. That’s right, the ukulele. And she’s planning to buy dozens of them, which aspiring players can borrow from Activate Arts.
“People generally love the ukulele,” Akins said, for its “sweet timbre” and small size. People are sometimes overwhelmed by the larger instruments, she added, but the ukulele is “something you can hold close to you. And It’s playful. At a time like now, when there is a lot of fear, anxiety, this instrument brings joy.”
Last winter, Akins, who is also a spiritual director and death doula, conducted the “Love Concert,” a ukulele performance themed around Valentine’s Day, at the Driftwood Public Library in Lincoln City. Akins advertised for players, mentioned it was free, and offered to provide ukuleles or invited people to bring their own. They practiced together just five times, then more than two dozen players showed up to perform the Elvis Presley standard “Can’t Help Falling Love.”
“It was inspired by community love and was our end-of-term showcase concert,” she said. “It was so exciting. We had a great turnout. That’s when I knew: This is an instrument that people really love.”
A ukulele costs about $100, but Akins struck a deal that should garner 40 to 50 of them. She plans to allow aspiring players to check out the four-stringed, guitar-like instruments from Activate Arts.
Akins works for the youth shelter and juvenile detention in Lincoln County and said the grant will help that population. “Kids in shelter or detention can check out these ukuleles,” she said. “I use them everywhere. Now I’ll be able to have more for people to check out and practice.”
In the coming year, Akins, who travels the state with her instruments, plans to bring all of her uke players together in a virtual performance by an intergenerational ukulele choir. She views the virtual performances as one of the “benefits” of the pandemic, broadening the conductor’s reach by bringing musicians together from near and far, rural and urban.
Having almost no musical ability myself, but being somewhat smitten by the idea of trying out the instrument that was initially introduced to Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants, I had to ask, how difficult is the ukulele to play?
“It depends,” said Akins, who has taught music for 20 years. “It’s a preference thing. Some folks see it as being very challenging, and some just pick it up right away. As a music instructor, I believe if you have the desire to make music, you can make music.
“Some folks, they just want to strum, and some folks want to do finger-picking. With uke choir, I can find out what they love doing. That is what is so beautiful about the choir model, we can do what we enjoy and it all comes together.”
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.