By Alicia Stemper/Vitamin O
A group of ukulele players from the Unitarian Universalist (“UU”) Church in Chapel Hill started playing together six or seven years ago on the 2nd and 4th Monday of every month. Known as the UUkes, the group has since expanded beyond church membership. One participant, Paul Hurt, started attending 16 months ago. He describes the ukulele as “a playful instrument – it’s hard to take yourself too seriously.” Although the group includes “very fine musicians,” Paul claims to have “no discernible musical ability.” Nevertheless, he reports he “feels welcome and has fun,” adding, “I don’t know whether it’s only nice people play ukulele or if playing the ukulele makes you nice.”
According to Steve Smith, one of the organizers, the ukulele is more approachable than other instruments. “As long as the ukulele is in tune, a complete beginner can sound okay.” With five basic chords, one can play “a great number of songs,” yet the instrument remains intriguing because it is difficult to fully master.
Christine Dixon recently attended a UUkes meetup for the first time. A guitar player new to the ukulele, she is attracted to the instrument because it is portable and “a lot easier to make progress faster.” Karl Dretowski, another first time participant, came to play while in town from Minneapolis for a business trip after learning about the group on www.meetup.com/chuukes/.
Dan Uyesato provides the group with musical guidance at the meetings and gives audiences some ukulele history when the group performs. He started playing at age five “until Tiny Tim came along and made it risky.” Uyesato then played “less socially debilitating instruments” before eventually returning to the instrument whose name loosely translates to “jumping flea.”
The UUkes tend to start their jams with simple songs and gradually get more complex as folks warm up and relax. Although they mostly meet and play for fun, the group has performed at church services, senior centers, libraries, the Scrap Exchange, Johnny’s in Carrboro, and at the baggage claim area of RDU airport! They once played at birthday party for a one year old on one day, and for a 100 year old the next.