By Jim D’Ville

In the shadow of the majestic Cascade Range of central Oregon lies the epicenter of the Pacific Northwest ukulele world: Bend, Oregon, home of the Bend Ukulele Group. And once a year over 300 ukulele enthusiasts travel from near and far to attend the BUGs’ annual festival, Ukulele University. Now in its fifth year, Uke U 5 convened on the beautiful campus of the Cascades Academy just north of Bend the weekend of July 15–17, 2016.

Crossing the Deschutes River on the way to class.

Crossing the Deschutes River on the way to class.

Pre-festival activities began on Thursday evening with a potluck and jam session at Tumalo State Park, a lovely campground nestled along the pristine banks of the Deschutes River. This is also where many of the attendees stayed for the weekend as it is just a few minutes walk to the festival venue at the academy.

What started out as a humble little ukulele festival in the wilds of the central Oregon high desert has evolved into a destination event that sells out every year. This year’s performers and instructors included Craig Chee, Sarah Maisel, The Quiet American (Aaron and Nicole Keim), Ben Bonham, Rhan Wilson and Rick Zeek, myself, and a host of local presenters.

Jamming in the pines.

Jamming in the pines.

Over forty workshops for all levels were offered at this year’s event, two evening concerts, and a rousing Sunday morning gospel jam entitled “Matthew, Mark, Uke, and John.” All activities took place in the academy’s classrooms and spacious main auditorium.

Bob Rasmussen, co-founder of the BUGs explains how attending Ukulele University helps foster the Bend group’s ukuleles in the schools program. “In keeping with our education component, profits from Uke U support the Ukes for Youth Program in area schools and activity programs. Started with profits from the first Uke U, which were used to purchase a set of ukuleles we loaned to a single school, the program has grown to serve over 2,000 students each year, with many more schools and programs asking to be included. Since the beginning, our association with RiseUp, a nonprofit foundation that supports music and art programs both locally and internationally, has been very beneficial, providing guidance and a conduit by which tax deductible donations can be channeled.”

The thing I witnessed that was most impressive at Uke U 5 was the elevated skill level of the participants. Many of the attendees were local members of the BUGs, whose weekly jam sessions regularly attract up to 100 players. The Bend group’s dedication to practice is definitely reflected in their playing. Says Bob, “What really helped us build our jams is the use of a screen and a projector for our music, to focus attention on the stage, rather than looking down at their books. This allows us to change things up, call out for an instrumental verse, make room for solos, and keep everyone engaged.”

Ukulele University 6 is scheduled for next July and it will sell out, so if you want to attend a wonderful uke fest in a gorgeous setting surrounded by over 300 like-minded ukers mark your calendars now!

Milo Fultz, Sarah Maisel, and Craig Chee in concert

Milo Fultz, Sarah Maisel, and Craig Chee in concert

Onstage with the biggest uke in the room.

Onstage with the biggest uke in the room.

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