Want to Play the Ukulele? photo of people playing the ukulele

Want to Play the Ukulele?

Come out and join the Northern Virginia Ukulele Society

Two Sundays a month, strums from the soft strings of the Northern Virginia Ukulele Society (NVUS) fill the air in Café Montmartre in Reston’s Lake Anne Plaza.

Led by native Hawaiian Moses Kamai, the NVUS is open to anyone with an interest in playing the ukulele. “The NVUS is a social club for people who enjoy playing the ukulele to come out and just play or strum, or to improve themselves and their musicianship,” Kamai explained.

In Hawaiian, the word ukulele is pronounced “OO-koo-LE-le.”

“The uke is a friendly instrument that just engenders getting together socially. People can jam and have fun, with no pretense of having to be a professional musician.” In fact, the motto for the group is “No Blame, No Shame.” A beginning uke is inexpensive, and with just four strings, it is easy to play.

The Northern Virginia Ukulele Society began as a jam session in Centreville in 2008 with fewer than 10 people regularly attending. After finding the group in 2009, and attending only a few meetings before the leader announced he was relocating, Kamai “inherited” the reins. He moved the group to Reston, and has grown it by leaps and bounds to now more than 275 members.

Many Ways to Enjoy the NVUS

Anyone, from a first-timer to an experienced player, will feel comfortable attending the meetups, where music director Kamai and other volunteer leaders lead beginner and technique workshops, followed by two delightful hours of songs, shares and jams. In addition to three Hawaiian “NVUS signature songs” everyone is expected to know, the jams include everything from pop to country and bluegrass, Hawaiian to Tin Pan Alley, and classical to rock.

On the 4th Sunday of each month, the jam is followed by a Ukulele Open Mic session where members can perform on stage before an admiring and supportive audience. Past Open Mics have seen performers from ages 12 through 85, and sometimes professional uke players including The Aloha Boys stop by to entertain the crowd. The Open Mic is open to the community.

Quarterly, the group meets at North Gate Winery to enjoy wine tasting and tunes, and support the winery’s owner who is also a member and a sponsor. They recently held a campout at the winery, playing into the wee hours of the morning.

People Playing the Ukulele

The NVUS can be heard out in the local community as well, with performances at the Reston Regional Library, Senior Centers, Reston Town Center, the Ukulele Festival at Lake Anne and other locations. Members also attend and provide volunteer help for occasional public workshops with professional uke musicians including Victoria Vox and Jim deVille.

There are no membership fees or dues to join the NVUS, and members enjoy discounts and offers provided by the group’s five sponsors: NOVA Music Center in Manassas (where Kamai also teaches private lessons), the House of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, North Gate Vineyards, Shaka Time Hawaiian clothing, and Café Montmartre.

Northern Virginia Ukulele Ensemble Goes to Hawaii

A performance group called the Northern Virginia Ukulele Ensemble was more recently created from the membership. This July, 14 members of the Ensemble will travel to Waikiki with an invitation to perform onstage before an audience of 2000-4000 people at the 47th annual Ukulele Festival, the largest and longest-running uke festival in the U.S. While there, they will also perform at the Honolulu Zoo and on a live Sunday radio show.

Three Distinct Waves of Uke Popularity

The ukulele is making what Kamai describes as its “third wave of popularity.” The first wave came in the 1920s, on radio programs where the ukulele was often featured. Its favor died off when television became the preferred medium.

Arthur Godfrey: The Father of the Second Ukulele Wave

The second resurgence was harkened in by popular TV personality Arthur Godfrey, who promoted playing, sold his own line of ukuleles, and was considered in the ukulele community the “father of the second ukulele wave.” At the peak of his success in the 1940s and 50s, Godfrey hosted two CBS weekly TV series and a daily mid-morning show, and would often jump into impromptu jam sessions on the air with his band, singing with his ukulele. However, when Tiny Tim appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1968 with his falsetto version of Tiptoe Through the Tulips, the instrument took on the air of ridiculousness, and dropped in popularity.

Many people may not know that Godfrey was a local resident, living at his Beacon Hill estate just west of Leesburg. In his later years, Godfrey hosted his Friday radio shows from his farm. He is buried in Leesburg’s Union Cemetery.

Jake Shimabukuro: Internet Sensation

In 2006, then-unknown ukulele virtuoso and native Hawaiian Jake Shimabukuro  settled himself on a boulder in New York’s Central Park and began playing George Harrison’s  While My Guitar Gently Weeps. When a video of this performance was posted on YouTube, it received well over 12 million hits and made Shimabukuro an international sensation. In addition to Jake, many people are familiar with Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole’s rendering of Over the Rainbow.

The NVUS retains ties with the Birchmere and Strathmore performing spaces, and when Shimabukuro performs, you might find 40-60 NVUS members attending together and enjoying special ticket prices. Prior to the Birchmere performance, the NVUS was given permission to jam in the lobby, and afterwards, had the opportunity to impress Shimabukuro with a short performance.

In 2016, ukulele sales in the U.S. were reported at well over $1,400,000. You can share in its popularity by playing a few tunes of your own—with the Northern Virginia Ukulele Society. 

Photos credit: Mary Jeanne Cincotta

Resources

Northern Virginia Ukulele Society, www.meetup.com/NoVA-Uke-Ensemble/

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