By Karen Peterson
It’s a picture-perfect October day in the desert—not too hot, a steady breeze rustling the palm trees, butterflies dancing above the bougainvillea, white storm clouds building over the mountains under an otherwise deep-blue sky. But the sunny mood that brightened this Sunday afternoon at Atria Campana del Rio, a senior community in Tucson, Arizona, comes from the music playing by the pool—ukulele music, of course, performed by the Tucson Ukulele Meetup (TUM), whose unusually eclectic playlist has the audience tapping its feet and swaying in chairs for two hours.
The group’s musical surprises keep smiles on the faces in the crowd. Like when Rose Mayer blows a bird-whistle trill to “Mockin’ Bird Hill.” Or when Paul Martin plays a mean harmonica along with Peggy Vincent on fiddle for “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Or when Helen Wheels, TUM’s other co-organizer, shouts one of her audience-revving cowboy hoots. The day is filled with unlikely musical selections, including the Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” and Tucson native Linda Ronstadt’s version of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.”
The Tucson Ukulele Meetup is not your cookie-cutter uke group.
Most notable in the group’s playlist is the near-absence of Hawaiian tunes, an omission related to how the club chooses what it practices and performs. Individual members nominate a song, the group works on it at regular weekly meetings, and the members then vote on whether they will include it in a future TUM songbook, now numbering nine.
The Tucson Ukulele Meetup performs a diverse collection of pop and rock (from ABBA to Joni Mitchell), country-western, bluegrass, ragtime, and even a bit of the blues, though, as Feeley nots, “It’s hard to be blue when you have a ukulele in your hand. We really didn’t want to become a ‘book club,’ playing through [songs] and then moving on to the next,” says Feeley, referring to uke groups that rely on standard ukulele songbooks.
That’s not how TUM works.
“We take music seriously, [but] not ourselves,” adds Wheels. “That’s our motto. We treat everyone like a musician from day one.”
It doesn’t hurt to have a member with a computer and music notation skills. Frank Judnich, a retired Navy and NASA consultant, adapts TUM’s wide-ranging musical selections to the ukulele—chords, measures, and lyrics—creating what a serious uke band seriously needs: “a real repertoire,” he says.
The club has about 35 active members, 15 of whom are avid performers. In addition to its performance at Atria, the group also plays at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital and at community events, including Tucson’s Cyclovia festivities, when busy city streets are closed to cars and opened to pedestrians and cyclists. Last year TUM donated ten ukuleles to a local elementary school.
The group meets at Tucson public libraries on Thursdays and Sundays, allowing members to choose the day that best fits their schedules. During a Sunday practice, Feeley, Wheels, and the other group members rehearse hard, but in an atmosphere of easy laughter and good-natured teasing.
Martin, the aforementioned harmonica player, is a professional guitarist who joined TUM seven months ago; he’s now mastering the tenor uke. Martin says he appreciates the group’s “high energy” and was happy to get a chance to learn not only a new instrument but also new genres. “I’d never played ragtime,” he says, “but it’s so cool to play it with a group.”
Mayer, the bird whistler, is a puppet-maker fulfilling a lifelong dream to play an instrument and sing. After stumbling onto the TUM website earlier this year, she called Wheels, a professional musician and the club’s mentor. “She was so encouraging,” Mayer says. “She recommended coming to meetings, borrowing the club’s ukulele, and checking the club out before I bought an instrument.” Mayer now plays ukulele during storytime at the Tucson literacy program Make Way for Books.
Stacy Egan, a singer and artist, picked up ukulele this year and is happy to be in the company of other players. “We support each other and give each other space to do what we can do to excel,” says Egan, a retired engineer.
Srin Manne also joined TUM about a year ago, after spending two years learning the ukulele on his own. “I had gotten as far as I could go, and with bad habits,” says Manne, a physics professor at the University of Arizona. “The club has forced me to get disciplined,” he says, smiling. “I used to strum according to feel. With the group I strum when it feels right.”
Feeley, too, had been teaching himself to play the ukulele before joining the group. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis four years ago and no longer able to enjoy golf, Feeley pulled out the ukulele his wife had bought him and started strumming one weekend. That led to his finding an earlier ukulele group, where he met Wheels, who is legally blind and confined to a wheelchair due to a neurological disorder related to ALS.
That group disbanded shortly after they joined, but Feeley and Wheels weren’t about to call it quits, so they kept going. “We decided to split up the [organizational] duties,” says Feeley, who plays several ukes, including a Kala U-bass. “TUM is my social group. I like them,” he says of his fellow strummers. “I look forward to Sundays.”