By Julie Garisto
On a balmy Saturday afternoon in Largo, Florida, a southern suburb of Tampa, 40 people have gathered with their ukuleles at a palm tree dotted apartment complex inhabited mostly by retirees. Excitedly chattering like high-school kids in a band class, the members of the southern chapter of the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society (TBUS) are called to order by 49-year-old jam-leader Jay Nunes. “Welcome back everybody—you ready to start? Neither am I,” he says with a good-natured grin, and the group launches into the Everly Brothers classic “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” The Largo chapter is just one of many chapters that meet up for jams across two Florida counties—together, they compose the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society. With nearly 700 members throughout central Florida, the larger group is the third biggest confab of uke players in the United States.
“I thought we’d get around a dozen or two-dozen players, not hundreds,” says Steve Boisen, 46, who founded the club in 2009. “Now we have non-profit status and a board of directors.” Boisen, who performs with his daughter in the uke duo the Barnkickers, conceived the TBUS as a place “for beginners to learn some new songs and techniques and for players of all levels to perform together in a supportive environment.” A Berklee College of Music alum and multi-instrumentalist, Boisen thinks the key to the group’s success is the accessibility of the uke. “People will start ukulele who are too intimidated to try other instruments,” Boisen says. “They will pick up a ukulele and play it with just a little practice.” The relative ease of playing a ukulele, Boisen argues, recalls a more primal time in our history, when music was something people just did.
For Boisen’s 22-year-old fashionable, yet folksy, daughter AmandaLynn, being a member ukulele community has become a big part of her life. Wearing glasses and a short brim fedora, she fits the part of uke ambassador perfectly. “My dad and I just fell into it,” she says. “It wasn’t preconceived. We got together with friends and said, ‘Well, let’s just form a club. It wound up becoming a doorway into a nationwide circuit.” Given the ukulele’s current wave of global popularity, there’s no doubt that the Boisens picked a good time to start a club. Steve notes that while the playability factor has helped draw people to the instrument, today’s generation isn’t encumbered by the instrument’s past baggage. “Young people today didn’t grow up with the stigma of Tiny Tim,” Boisen noted. “Cool bands, like Beirut, feature ukuleles now.” At the Largo jam session, however, the bulk of the club’s members are decidedly old enough to recall Tiny Tim’s antics, but didn’t seem the least put off. There are a fair number of single men in attendance, strumming soprano ukes and socializing. Retired couples share a common bond in their enjoyment of playing music at an age when some might assume people can’t learn a new instrument.
Occasionally calling out chord changes, Nunes leads players of all experience levels through renditions of “Runaway” by Del Shannon, “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel, and “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash. A veteran guitarist who has played in blues rock and cover bands, Nunes migrated to the ukulele after suffering a frightening mishap. “I was an iron worker and was knocked off a building by a crane swinging a load of steel onto the building,” Nunes shares. “I fell 20 feet and broke my ring finger on my left hand, which, in turn, needed a pin to fix.” In 2011, after his recovery, Nunes and his wife, Kelly, were “goofin’ around” in a local music shop, when he picked up a uke, started playing, and kept going for 45 minutes. “You didn’t complain once!” his wife told him. A few months later, she bought him his first ukulele, which he took to immediately.
A TBUS event organizer who oversees musicians with a nurturing, almost maternal approach, Norine Mungo hosts beginner sessions, and performs with her husband in an act called the Mungos. “I teach a method I developed over the years on the guitar,” Mungo says. “I call it, ‘Transitional Chording,’ and I basically treat the strings and frets as if it were a typewriter, not lifting their fingers off the frets. Once they get the sliding technique down, they begin to fly through the songs.” Mungo and other TBUS event leaders set up workshops throughout the year, and the group also organizes a concert series that features artists from across the country. “Recently, we had Stu Fuchs, and in February we had Flea Bitten Dawgs with Mike Hind, and in January we had Little Rev!” Mungo exclaims with a broad smile. “We keep the members very engaged.”
TBUS’s three-day Ukulele Getaway festival, which takes place November 7-9, is in its fifth year, and attracts such national headliners as Victoria Vox and the Jukes. Boisen says the event sells out right away because of the club’s “built-in audience.” AmandaLynn and Steve have experienced ukulele mania firsthand, both as club founders and while performing as the Barnkickers. Still, the recent popularity of the instrument can be overwhelming at times. “Anytime we play a festival, we’ll just look at each other and say, ‘Who does this?’” AmandaLynn says. “We’re playing ukuleles in Milwaukee, New York. This is so surreal—this is a thing!” Thanks, in part, to the Tampa Bay Ukulele Society, this is a very big thing in central Florida. “One thing that always happens at our Ukulele Getaway is that the hotel staff see how much fun we are having and a few of them wind up buying ukulele themselves,” Boisen says. “It’s that contagious.”