“There’s no pride in being a ukulele musician—you have to leave your ego at the door,” said Bob Rasmussen, founder of the Bend Ukulele Group.
And every Tuesday at the Broken Top Bottle Shop, a room full of passionate uke-heads do just that, cradling their tiny four strings to their chests, watching each other for cues and reading music from a preassembled playlist of songs that range from traditional Hawaiian ditties to Beatles’ jams.
Admittedly, they look a little strange, but the chorus of ukuleles makes for a sweet sound accompanied by the player’s sugary vocal harmonies.
“If you don’t leave with a smile on your face, you’re a pretty sad individual,” said Roger Fisher, who joined the Bend Ukulele Group, or BUG, just after its start about a year ago.
The group now boasts over 60 members devoted to bringing the ukulele back into style with their weekly meet-ups and the upcoming Ukulele University Festival, in session from Friday, July 20 to Sunday, July 22 at Runway Ranch east of Bend.
At Ukulele University, or as Fisher enthusiastically chanted “Uke U!,” the group will hold workshops, jams, open mics and performances, all revolving around their favorite little four string.
The event is patterned after the High and Dry Bluegrass Festival, which invites participants to camp at Runaway Ranch and enjoy some after-hours jamming. After putting on a workshop at last year’s High and Dry, the BUGs were offered a slot for a uke-centric festival of their own.
“It’s kind of like doing Woodstock on a really tiny scale,” said Fisher.
The group was started by Rasmussen and his wife, Linda, both of whom grew up playing the ukulele in school in Hawaii.
After being members of the Santa Cruz Ukulele Club, easily the largest group of uke aficionados with over 500 members worldwide and monthly oceanside gatherings numbering in the hundreds, they brought that passion and community spirit to Bend.
“It’s an energy that I haven’t experienced anywhere else,” said Rasmussen. “It’s a whole bunch of people out singing like around a campfire.”
That underlying sense of fellowship is at the core of the group. By the end of my meeting with Fisher and Rasmussen, they have invited me to jam with them, too.
The two men insist that you don’t need to know how to play the ukulele to participate in their weekly gatherings at Broken Top Bottle Shop. Between singing, playing percussion, or just picking up the uke for the first time, the jam is a no-experience-necessary good time with participants ranging from newbies to professional musicians.
“The ukulele makes music accessible,” said Rasmussen.
Once the butt of jokes, the ukulele can be hard to take seriously, but the BUGs insist that it’s an instrument growing in popularity and worth a second look. They are hoping to prove it at Uke U.
The festival will kick off with a luau Friday night featuring musical and dance performances, Kalua pulled pork BBQ, and fun for all. Any profits will be donated to help start ukulele programs in local schools. Both Rasmussen and Fisher are adamant about the importance of music as part of a curriculum. The BUGs also play monthly at a nursing home locally and insist that music is good for everyone, young and old.
“We’re hoping that we are creating a community,” said Rasmussen, “We want that community to be all inclusive.”
As the popularity of the instrument soars, the BUGs operate under the attitude that it’s not a trend; it’s all about spreading that Aloha spirit.
“Aloha spirit is one of positive energy that you get when you go to the beach with friends, or when you extend yourself and open yourself up to friendship,” said Rasmussen. “It can relate to the beauty of Hawaii, the ocean, the flowers, the mountains, the warm air. It conjures up a feeling and you can recreate that.”
Sounds pretty good right? You can get that spirit of Hawaiian friendship without buying a plane ticket. Just grab your uke, your guitar, your bongos, your banjo, or your kazoo for a weekend of music making with the friendliest group of players in town.
Friday-Sunday July 20-22
Runway Ranch, 21785 Butler Market Road
$35/ adult festival pass
Children under 14 free.
Camping fee $10
More info: www.ukeu.info.
Broken Top Ukulele Jam
6:30 p.m. every Tuesday