One little instrument is starting to make a lot of noise in Montgomery County, as ukulele players from around the area get set to converge on North Bethesda next week for the third annual UkeFest.
The event has an added mission this year: Organizers plan to bring enough musicians together at the Aug. 24 event to beat a world record for the largest ukulele ensemble that has ever performed.
UkeFest, held each year on the grounds of the Strathmore Music Center, was started by Grammy-award winning artists and Bethesda residents Marcy Marxer and Cathy Fink.
The event started as a way of showcasing the ukulele, an often under-appreciated instrument that can be easy to learn yet capable of creating complex and difficult music, from island melodies and showtunes to classical pieces, Fink said.
The ukulele is most popular in groups, making it a very “social” instrument, Fink said.
“People just like to get together and play it together,” she said. “That’s the thing about the uke, it’s happy, it’s fun.”
And its compact size makes it relatively inexpensive and more mobile than such instruments as the guitar, she added.
For ukulele player Betty Hiltunen of Silver Spring, the UkeFest offers a chance to show off the hard work of her group of amateur musicians, called The Riders, all consisting of residents of the Riderwood Retirement Community in Silver Spring who have played the event since its inception. She looks forward to the festival’s effort to break a record as well.
“We’re just thrilled,” said Hiltunen, 81. “It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”
Hiltunen said she only picked up the four-stringed chordophone after her daughter suggested she try it. She offered to start a club at Riderwood dedicated to the Hawaiian guitar-like instrument and saw its popularity blossom.
The now 24-person group plays together each week and has performed at the Strathmore Music Center twice, she said.
Dottie Mackin, 94, the oldest of The Riders, said she took up the instrument for the fun of it and practices every Wednesday with Hiltunen for the same reason.
“It’s a lot of fun,” she said. “We get a kick out of it.”
At this year’s UkeFest, the Riders will open the festivities with a chorus of Hawaiian music as an homage to the ukulele’s roots in island culture.
In hopes of beating the London Uke Festival’s record of 851 players performing in unison, set on June 20, 2009, the Strathmore’s UkeFest is hoping to convene as many players as possible and will be selling $30 ukes through the House of Musical Traditions of Takoma Park at the event.
The plan, according to organizers, is to cap off the festival with a 7:30 p.m. performance from the crowd of players.
For more information about the festival, call the Strathmore offices at 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.
The event is free and open to the public, and visitors are encouraged to come equipped with a ukulele in order to help set the ensemble-size world record.