By Amber von Nagel
Ukulele players have a reputation for being quirky and expressive, so it’s no surprise that Austin, Texas, a city known for its quirkiness and expressiveness, would be home to such a large and devoted group of ukulele players, the Austin Ukulele Society. The AUS is led by Jen Brown, Walter Minkel, and Bob Guz, all passionate uke players. Although they refrain from taking on official titles as “leaders” or “officers,” their strong leadership and organizational skills have been integral in creating and maintaining such an active uke club. The club performs as well—one recent gig was the Keep Austin Weird Fest and 5K, where they played uke songs to cheer on the runners. They even spotted a runner wearing a pink bra over her running clothes that she adorned with two pink ukuleles. Austin is clearly a great place for uke players to show their pride!
I talked to Jen Brown to find out more about the club—how it got started, how it’s organized, and what advice they have for others who want to start uke clubs.
Where do you meet?
We meet monthly at 7 pm on the second Thursday of each month in a church’s community classroom in North Central Austin.
How many members do you have?
We have over 200 members, of which a revolving 40–55 members attend each meeting. New members come to our meeting every month. We have a wonderfully diverse group, including one three-generation family and several two-generation families, pairs of siblings, and many couples.
Why did you start the Austin Ukulele Society?
Bob and I were both very inspired by the ukulele clubs featured in the documentary film The Mighty Uke. We were also impressed by the turnout at the theater to see the documentary; it was obvious that there were a lot of ukulele lovers in Austin. Shortly afterward we met for lunch and decided it was time to get a ukulele club going in Austin, so we worked on it in the fall of 2010 and got it started in January 2011.
What are your favorite songs to play at the meet-ups?
We enjoy playing a wide variety of songs, including “Love Potion Number 9,” “On the Road Again,” “Margaritaville,” “Runaway,” and “Three Little Birds.” We try to add a new-to-us tune to our repertoire each month. We also reserve a section of our meetings for an open mic, where anyone can get up and play a song of their choice for the group.
How do you organize and promote your club?
The club is organized by a few dedicated leaders: Bob, myself, and Walter. Generally speaking, Bob prepares chord charts to suit the group, teaches the new songs, and leads the strum-alongs at each meeting. I handle most of the e-mail and Facebook communication. Walter handles our blog/website [austinukulelesociety.wordpress.com]. We all take photos and make efforts to promote not only our group’s meetings and performances but all ukulele-related happenings in Austin. Our members and their families help out with videos, photos, and performance opportunities as well. Local media attention has helped too!
Some uke clubs are focused on Hawaiiana, while others avoid the theme completely. Where does your club fall on that spectrum?
The Austin Ukulele Society prides itself on playing a great variety of music styles, from early rock hits like “Runaway” and “Eight Days a Week” to reggae tunes like “Three Little Birds” to jazz standards like “All of Me” and “Sway” to contemporary hits like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” Admittedly, we are a bit biased because we think nearly every kind of song sounds great on the ukulele, and we also enjoy choosing songs that sound great being sung by a large group. We neither focus on nor avoid Hawaiiana and truly enjoy when our members play Hawaiian tunes during the open mic part of our meeting. Sometime soon, we’ll likely add a Hawaiian tune or two to our repertoire.
How often does your club perform live as a group?
The AUS performs live around four to six times a year. We’ve enjoyed several opportunities to play live as a group, including a family music festival, a breast cancer awareness fundraiser that we hosted, and the Beatles Complete on Ukulele event at SXSW. Live performances provide a great reason to get together for additional practices and increase ukulele enthusiasm around Austin.
Do you have any tips for others who would like to start their own ukulele clubs?
Meet on a mid-week weekday rather than a weekend day, as folks tend to have a more consistent schedule on weekdays and often prefer to reserve their weekends for family and home projects. Also, we advertised in the musicians section of Craigslist to get the group started, and this was successful, since about 20 people came to our first meeting! One last recommendation would be to pick a space that will accommodate up to 40 to 50 people; we outgrew our first meeting location in about a year’s time.