Metro-East Living

They keep strummin’ along: Ukulele group blends music and fun

It was late Tuesday afternoon and the mix of dainty strumming and cheerful sing-along behind a closed door had some customers in the Abbey cafe tapping their feet.

There were strains of “Crazy,” “Red River Valley,” “In the Jungle” — including tropical bird calls — and the current hit by Jeff Buckley, “Hallelujah.”

“Kind of nice, isn’t it?” said Mel Delsmith, sipping a latte and humming a bit. “Sounds like they’re having fun.”

More than 20 players had squeezed into a small meeting room with large windows at the coffeehouse, most of them holding what looked like pint-size guitars: ukuleles. They strummed. They sang. They swayed. Mostly in unison and in key. When they paused, they talked about the music, helped newcomers and laughed.

Music notebook in front of her, Virginia Toler asked them to look for the sheet music for “Hallelujah.”

“It’s C and A minor pretty much,” she said, later noting that reading music isn’t a requirement to play the petite instrument. “Once you know the chords, that’s all you need.” (Ukulele sheet music shows the chord positions about the notes.)

Virginia, of Belleville, is the leader of the UkuLadies ’N Guise.

“It is a social thing,” she said of meeting weekly at the Abbey to practice. “There is a range of experience, from people who have never played to those who are musicians.”

Jim Klenn, who had been trying to teach himself to play the uke, knew Virginia, so he joined.

“I was pretty nervous because of my total lack of musical knowledge and skill,” he said of his first time with the group. “But after 15 or 20 minutes, I realized that the people who make up the group are so kind and generous and fun-loving that I felt right at home — and have made a roomful of friends to boot.”

He then brought along co-worker Stehn Soderman and his blue guitar. Stehn brought his wife Mary Ann, who comes to sing along.

“We play everything from folk to the Grateful Dead and the Beatles,” Jim said.

“We don’t play ‘Tiny Bubbles,’” Virginia added, laughing. It’s a classic Hawaiian song accompanied by a ukulele.

The loose-knit ensemble started forming late last summer. Initially, it was just women — the guys came later, hence the name of the group.

“At first, it was 10 of us at Susie’s — just music in the daytime because we were retired,” said Virginia, 63 of her friend Susan Schneider. “I had played the guitar, fiddle and mandolin and Susie had a ukulele friends gave her. Then I bought two at a festival. You have to have more than one because someone will want to play.”

Susan, of Belleville, said the cozy little instrument has a charismatic appeal.

“I think people feel like they can pick it up and play it,” she said. “You can learn to play in a matter of weeks.”

Musical chairs

When the group grew too big, they moved to the Abbey because the owner’s sister, Julie Orlet, and then an employee, both joined the group.

Newcomer Sheree Willams, 56, of Belleville, heard about it through Julie.

“It’s my third week and I’m up to five chords,” Sheree said. “It’s fairly easy. They have welcomed me with open arms.”

During the Tuesday get-together, Steve Wheat, of Smithton, pulled out his green bass ukulele. He was the guy who helped keep the beat, his uke sounding like a bass fiddle.

Across from him, Virginia switched to a banjolele, which is just what it looks and sounds like: a down-sized, higher-pitched banjo. Among the sheet music were glasses of iced tea, beer and wine.

“This is a fountain of youth for me,” said Steve, 63. “I’ve played the guitar since I was 13. I just got back from a trip and a ukulele is much easier to travel with.”

The group practices from 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays, sometimes venturing out to perform at a daycare center and sing Christmas carols out in the big room at the Abbey. They will perform there at noon March 14 after the Belleville St. Patrick’s Day parade, as well as their regular time on March 17.

“We’re working on some Irish tunes,” said professional musician Stan Whyte, holding his beautifully carved uke.

The gathering is not about “big music,” he said. “Here, everybody relaxes.”