When Marcy Marxer was a child, she found a ukulele in a trash can. Her partner Cathy Fink received a Gibson ukulele as a gift from an elderly friend who urged her to play it.
The passion both women developed for the instrument, aka “uke,” continued into adulthood. They have visited Hawaii, where ukulele music first came to the New World via Portuguese sailors. Later, the music reached the mainland and the wider public through Tin Pan Alley and vaudeville.
“The ukulele became popular in the 1950s and ’60s on the Arthur Godfrey show,” said Fink. “And since the ’80s, there’s been a groundswell of interest in the instrument. There are gigantic ukulele clubs — such as in Santa Cruz, California — devoted to it.”
Fink and Marxer bequeathed their love of the ukulele to the wider D.C.-area community when they and fellow player James Hill co-founded an annual festival for ukuleles and ukulele music under the auspices of Strathmore called UkeFest. The two women remain co-artistic directors and educational-content specialists of the annual summer event.
“UkeFest started 10 years ago at the initiation of Grammy-winning local musicians Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, in collaboration with our former programming director, Georgina Javor,” said Lauren Campbell, education director at Strathmore. “Strathmore engaged them because of their prominence in the folk music and the ukulele communities.”
In the decade since its founding, UkeFest has caught fire. Beginning as an outdoor concert with a class or two and a jam, the festival has grown into a five-day intensive educational experience “that builds amazing community,” Campbell said.
UkeFest includes eight hours of skill-based classes, according to four levels, from novice (never picked up a uke); to beginner (play a little, but not confident enough to change chords in three keys while keeping a steady beat) to intermediate (comfortable playing some three to four chords in three to four keys, ready for more) to advanced (truly advanced and fast-moving class, limited to 10 to 12 students).
UkeFest also features five hours where participants choose their own class sessions, jam sessions and ensemble work, plus admission to the Student and Instructor Showcases on the festival’s opening days.
One instructor — who teaches the novices — is Nani Lowery, who was born and raised in Hawaii and has been playing the ukulele for 50 years. “When I was 5, my mom put me a ukulele into my hand,” she recalled. “I played by ear; I never had any formal lessons. I just listened to the radio and watched what people did, and asked questions.”
Lowery came to the mainland 30 years ago for college and has been teaching ukulele since then. “I know how to read music, but I teach by experience,” she said. “I urge my students to listen to what they’re playing, that we know naturally what things should sound like.”
Lowery teaches ukulele at the Victor Litz Music Center in Gaithersburg, runs two ukulele jams and plays and teaches at a hula school. “Because of the federal government, a lot of Hawaiians work here,” Lowery said. “These places are like their home away from home; they gravitate to the performances, but also the friendships — not to mention that music in general is good for the soul.”
UkeFest exposes participants to many different teaching techniques and types of music. “We have an amazing teaching staff,” said Campbell. And, added Fink, “We change the program every year, so people have the opportunities to learn new things. They also have the opportunity to mingle with people of widely varying ages — from 6 to 80.
For UkeFest’s co-artistic directors and instructors like Lowery, it comes as no surprise that the festival and the instrument it celebrates have become so popular. One reason, said Campbell, is that it’s “non-threatening. Once you pick it up, you can start to have fun playing real music very quickly, whereas instruments like guitar and piano take longer to develop basic competence … It’s an instrument that helps connect people together through music.”
Fink agreed. “The uke is a versatile instrument, small, with only four strings, and very accessible. a very social instrument,” she said. “There are no boundaries as to the type of music it can play — these include rock, pop, jazz, and swing,”
There are ukulele virtuosi, but there are also a lot of people who sing and strum [for fun] — who are all just getting together, she added. “The ukulele can also be “a stepping stone to the guitar, but less expensive. For $50, you can find a good one.”
Because of its social quality, the uke is almost like a friend-maker in senior centers, Fink said, and is also used in music therapy. There’s even a Ukulele Kids Club, which gifts ukuleles to youngsters in hospital-based music-therapy programs.
Strathmore’s UkeFest culminates in a concert, free and open to the public, on Wednesday, Aug. 15. Prior to the formal concert, audience members who have brought their own ukes can participate in a strum-along.
A historic high point for UkeFest occurred in 2011, when participants competed to be the group with the most people playing ukes together for the Guinness Book of World Records. “We didn’t quite win, but it was a really fun evening, and got everyone to look for UkeFest the next year when it came around,” Campbell said.
With a registration that began July 1, places sold out quickly, and there was a waiting list. It’s not too soon to think about registering for next summer.
The 10th annual UkeFest Finale begins at 6:30 p.m. with a free strum-along (bring your uke!) followed by a 7 p.m. concert by UkeFest instructors on Wednesday, Aug. 15, at The Mansion at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. For information, call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.