BY NICOLAS GRIZZLE | FROM THE WINTER 2023 ISSUE OF UKULELE
Central Oregon has a lot of BUGs. That is, members of the Bend Ukulele Group, which started up in 2009 and gathers for weekly play-alongs and a monthly open mic night. The group is also known for hosting the popular Uke U Festival in central Oregon (2012–2019), which featured workshops and performances from such ukulele luminaries as Victoria Vox, Gerald Ross, Craig and Sarah, Lil’ Rev, Neal Chin, Casey MacGill, and Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, to name a few.
We caught up with Bob Rasmussen, an original BUG who is also president of the nonprofit Ukes for Youth, to ask him about the group, its community service work, and the future of Uke U.
What are your meetups like?
BUGs averages about 50 or so folks at our weekly play-alongs. I’d say we have a core group of maybe 75 or so who attend fairly regularly, and a couple hundred on our mailing list. Each week we have a few folks coming for their first time, including visitors to Bend.
The BUGs weekly play-along is open to folks of all ages, experience, and abilities. Each meeting has a coordinator who helps put together the playlist of about 24 songs, which are projected onto a screen at the meeting. The rotating group of coordinators allows for flexibility and consistency. The playlist is posted each week on our Facebook page, and songs are available online on our DropBox account.
Folks start arriving at about 5:30, and at 6:30 all the BUGs break into Bob Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” our opening song since we started the group. We play a few songs, take a break, then play the rest of list. We always finish by playing “On the Road Again.”
How did the pandemic affect your uke club?
During Covid, like everyone, BUGs stopped meeting in person. However, thanks to Karen O’Donnell and many BUGs contributors, we had a weekly play-along on DropBox, complete with a video of a leader playing and singing while the chords and lyrics were displayed alongside. It was a lot of work, but it did wonders to hold the group together.
What events have you been part of in the past?
Beginning in 2012, we presented the Uke U Festival, bringing many of the best performers and instructors in the world to Bend for three days of ukulele magic. Folks came from all over the Northwest, California, and across the country. The Bend Ukulele Group performed at each of the festivals, and members volunteered countless hours to present what many attendees and musicians said was the best weekend of their lives.
The success of the Uke U Festivals was a big surprise for us. Uke U sold out each of its last four years, usually within a couple of weeks. Many folks attended multiples times, and some had been every year. The sense of community was incredible.
With Covid looming, we decided to take a break in 2020. Our community is more fragmented since Covid, so building it up again is our priority. And the economics have changed. All that said, I’m hopeful that we will be able to bring high-quality ukulele events back to central Oregon. But just what that will look like is yet to be determined.
Tell us about any community service work you’ve done or offer on an ongoing basis.
BUGs is a sponsor of Ukes for Youth, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering the spirit of aloha in central Oregon through friendship, education, and ukulele music for people of all ages, which was started in 2012 after the first Uke U festival surprisingly showed a small profit. We purchased 40 ukuleles that we loaned to a local elementary music teacher. The next year we did it again. By 2014 we had loaned over 120 ukuleles circulating at six schools serving several hundred students each.
The most recent activity for the Bend Ukulele Group has been fundraising for the Maui Food Bank. Through T-shirt sales, auctions of ukuleles, and donations by BUGs members, our group has raised $1,500 so far.