Ukulele enthusiasts will be humming—and very likely strumming—along with some world-renowned “uke” musicians gathering on Wednesday, Aug. 23, at Strathmore’s annual UkeFest. The free event celebrates the growing popularity of a simple wooden instrument that just about anyone can play, and a few can play sublimely.
“The ukulele is a fabulous instrument with just four strings that will knock your socks off,” said musician Cathy Fink, who with her partner Marcy Marxer helped Strathmore found the annual event nine years ago. “You can play every style of music on the ukulele, from hip-hop to swing to jazz to folk. It’s incredibly flexible.”
The GRAMMY®-award winning duo will showcase that diverse repertoire with such uke luminaries as Benny Chong, Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel during the 7 p.m. show on Strathmore’s lawn. The event also serves as a grand finale for the students the musicians taught during the Strathmore Uke & Guitar Summit, a five-day workshop for budding and accomplished players that concludes the day before the concert.
“The Summit’s workshops were packed,” Fink said. “Learning to play the ukulele has a very multi-generational appeal. We’ve had students as young as age four and seniors in their 80s.”
During UkeFest, the audience is welcome to strum along, and that’s part of the charm of the instrument and the people who play it. “You can be a virtuoso, or you can be a strummer; you’re welcome to join us at UkeFest,” Fink said.
A Portuguese instrument adopted and adapted by Hawaiians in the last century, the popularity of the uke has waxed and waned over the years. A major fad during the 1920s, the uke briefly resurfaced again in the 1960s when frizzy-haired Tiny Tim had audiences tiptoeing through the tulips.
But something began to change in the 1990s, said musician Craig Chee, who was introduced to the uke in his home state of Hawaii, but now travels the world performing and instructing with his wife, musician Sarah Meisel. Performing at uke festivals worldwide, the duo logged in 125,000 air miles last year, and that doesn’t include the events they drove to from their San Diego home.
Chee credits the ease of learning to play the uke and its relatively inexpensive cost for making it accessible to aspiring musicians. Online uke tutorials also helped spark a renaissance that shows no sign of abating, he said.
“For a lot of people, it’s popular because its bringing music back into the living room,” Chee said. “It’s also highly adaptable. When we went to Japan, for instance, the kids don’t have that connection to Hawaii, so they played classical and pop music songs.”
Added to that is the fact that where you find one person playing a uke, more are sure to join in.
“It’s about sharing, not competing,” Meisel said, adding it wasn’t usual to see groups of 30 to 50 musicians of all ages and playing abilities gathering to jam.
Ultimately, however, it’s the warm and soulful sound of the uke that accounts for its popularity.
“It has a sweet, genuine sound and can convey all kinds of emotions. It’s very authentic,” Meisel said.
Strathmore’s Live from the Lawn Series features the UkeFest at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, on the lawn at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Admission is free. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.