Strathmore UkeFest 2011 gathers small strings in large numbers

Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer

Aziza Afzal and Meg Lebow, both sixteen, sat in the back seat of a Toyota, holding ukuleles, taking a crash course from their friend and musician Maya Davis.

They were on their way to the third annual Ukulele Fest at Strathmore Hall in Rockville  on August 24. The beginners had half an hour to learn the five chords they would need to master to join the hundreds of others—many rank amateurs like themselves—aiming to break a world record for the number of ukulele musicians playing together in one place.

The C chord was a piece of cake, the F a little gnarly. G7 gave them fits.

But soon they were parked on a blanket at Strathmore, cradling their ukes, ready for their chance to be recorded in the Guinness Book.

“I had barely heard of the ukulele before Strathmore,” said Meg, who vaguely remembers cartoon characters Lilo and Stitch plunking the small stringed instrument.  It was her boomer dad who grew up in the age of Tiny Tim.

But arts maven Busy Graham convinced a group of teen actors from Lumina Studio Theatre that they could master the basics in no time.  Their fellow acting buddies Raphael Grimes, Sam Felsenthal, Marcus Gordon, Olivia Solomon, Kiva Brick, Sophie Cameron, Sam Dembling, Molly Hickman, and Laura Kennedy-Long also got in on the act.

“The ukulele is warm and cuddly, said David Eisner, owner of Takoma Park’s House of Musical Traditions. “And what other instrument can you buy for $42?  That will barely get you a good set of guitar strings!”

He said that “hip and groovy people” like ukulele player Victoria Vox and The Sweater Set, both of whom performed at the Fest, have re-shaped the image of the ukulele for young people.

Leading the lineup of ukulele virtuosos and amateurs on stage at the Fest were Grammy award-winning hosts Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, architects of the record-breaking plan.  They reported to a jubilant crowd that 945 people had registered and then led a spirited rendition of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” followed by the traditional “Aloha Oe,” an homage to Hawaii, the spiritual homeland of the ukulele.

Although a similar event held the same week in Sweden looks like it will snag the Guinness Book record, it’s unlikely to diminish the luster of the Maryland effort.

At Strathmore’s lawn an armada of ukuleles were in full display —wooden ukes decorated with inlaid ivory, pink ukes adorned with flamingoes, ukes still shrouded in a patina of dust from grandma’s attic. A diminutive and sometimes trivialized cousin of the guitar, the little four-stringed uke was front and center on this day.

An ensemble from Riderwood Senior Living Community (“The Riders”) traveled from Silver Spring to take the stage.  Takoma Park was also well represented by the Piney Branch Kids Ukulele Ensemble, and the aficionados from HMT who sold 81 ukes in three hours.

“I bought one at Strathmore,” said Meg, “and I’m excited to keep playing it.”


 To view this photo gallery by Rachel Horesovsky, go to

Or watch the following slideshow (if the slideshow doesn’t load below, please hit the link above.):

About the Author

Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.