Fest Friends: The Life-Changing Magic of Ukulele Festivals


For many, the ukulele festival is their first introduction to the community aspect fostered by lovers of the instrument. The festival format is a potpourri of artist workshops, performances, open mics, and jamming—fertile ground for making connections. The stories here show how the ukulele festival unites our tribe.

Stories like how best friends Debbie and Danielle first met at a ukulele retreat on the snow-blanketed shore of Lake Tahoe, or how Al and Dale started with a zany idea that grew to attract hundreds of ukulele players on a summer pilgrimage to the hinterlands of northern Minnesota, are par for the course in the uke world. The one thing the people in these vignettes have in common is none of them had any idea of the life changing journey that was in store when the ukulele tapped them on the shoulder and whispered in their ear, “Wanna play some music?”

The catalyst for the current expansion of festivals worldwide can be traced to the first gigantic festival, Uke Fest West, held in Santa Cruz, California, in 2004. Over 700 ukuleleists attended this seminal event at the historic Coconut Grove Ballroom. Performers included Ukulele Hall of Famers Lyle Ritz, Bill Tapia, and nearly 40 other four-string luminaries. “In many ways, it was the Woodstock of ukulele festivals,” says Canadian ukulele master James Hill, who made his solo performing debut at the event.

“People came from all over the world and found out there were a whole lot of us!” says festival organizer Andy Andrews. “I know many friendships were created that weekend that still exist today.” The ripple effect of Uke Fest West also transformed Santa Cruz into one of the most uke-centric communities in the nation.

You’ll find members of our ukulele tribe playing together on beaches, in club meetings, parks, libraries, campsites—just about everywhere, really. But the ukulele’s power for human connection is genuinely magnificent at festivals, where it has the uncanny ability to bring like-minded people together.

Friends 4 Life

Debbie Haight’s ukulele journey began after moving to Nashville, Tennessee, in 2011. She had just started a new job in the Intensive Care Burn Unit at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and sought a musical companion. Unable to move her piano from New Jersey to Nashville, she bought a ukulele and was quickly hooked. She joined the Nashville Ukulele Society, attended her first festival in Tampa Bay, and five months later participated in the Menucha Ukulele Band Camp outside Portland, Oregon. In November of 2012, Debbie was back in the west, this time for the Lake Tahoe Ukulele Retreat.

At that same time, a ukulele-curious Danielle Hunt found herself at the retreat six months after catching the uke bug at the Reno Ukulele Festival. She didn’t own an instrument before Reno, where, she says, “I walked into the festival a confused person—totally out of their element. That afternoon, I bought a ukulele and went from knowing nothing to making music!”

Haight recounts meeting Hunt: “A Nashville friend I attended the retreat with was in the beginner classes with Danielle. My friend said I had to meet this cool woman.” When they met, both wore the same style of knitted fingerless gloves—the same pattern, just different yarn—that each had knitted for themselves. “Right then, we both realized we should be friends.”

Adds Hunt, “It was Debbie’s birthday. She was this glowing, bright-shining, bubbly person. Meeting her that day changed everything.”

They met again a few months later in Nashville, and the friendship blossomed. They made plans to attend the next Menucha camp as roommates. “As a single adult moving to a new city and entering a new career path, it wasn’t easy for me to find kindred spirits,” Haight says. “That’s why I was fortunate to find the ukulele and Danielle.” Even though they lived more than 2,000 miles apart, the new travel partners would visit numerous ukulele events throughout the country over the next few years.

“The ukulele used to be the biggest part of our relationship. That’s no longer true,” says Hunt. “If both my arms got chopped off tomorrow and I couldn’t play ukulele, I would still be very much united with our friendship.”

The Jam Man

In 2008, Memphis native Pete McCarty considered taking up the mandolin. Somehow, a YouTube search for a mandolin tutorial directed him to a video by a ukulele player named Jake Shimabukuro. “I had no idea who he was or even what instrument he played,” says McCarty. “Next thing I knew, I had ordered a ukulele, and I have played the ukulele every day since.” 

Pete McCarty leads the finale jam at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in England
Pete McCarty leads the finale jam at the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in England.

Back then he knew no one else in Memphis who played the instrument, and only one local music store sold them. But within the next six years, McCarty had formed a city-wide ukulele group, the Memphis Ukulele Flash Mob.

McCarty began attending festivals, notably the Silver Creek International Ukulele Carnival in Minnesota. “For me, a festival is not about the performers and concerts; it’s about the people attending the event,” he says. “Whatever it was about being around all these ukulele people singing and playing together, I wanted to make that happen where I lived.” In addition to leading his regular group, McCarty now also produces the Memphis Uke-N-Roll Jamboree, held every other year in April. 

He ultimately found his niche in the ukulele world by leading strum-alongs. His gregarious personality is infectious. He travels to ukulele events across the United States and abroad to lead folks in song. “A life-changing moment for me was in 2019 when the organizers of the Grand Northern Ukulele Festival in England asked me to lead their finale jam,” he says. “I led over 500 people in this beautiful theater in a sing-along—a moment I would never have envisioned happening.”

From Bar Bands to Classrooms

Ray Cygrymus began his musical journey at age 13, and later played guitar in a bar band for a few years after high school. He eventually earned a degree in music education, and for the past 29 years has taught music in grades 4–6 in the Peters Township School District south of Pittsburgh.

In 2009, his brother brought back a Pono ukulele for him from Hawaii, and the instrument began tiptoeing into his professional music life. “I was playing acoustic guitar as a duet with another guitar player, and I started incorporating the ukulele into our sets,” he says. “A few years later, we considered adding the ukulele into our curriculum at school. We approached the PTA, and they agreed to purchase 50 ukuleles.

Ray Cygrymus shreds on ukulele at the Brown County Ukulele Festival in IN
Ray Cygrymus shreds at the Brown County Ukulele Festival in IN. Photo: Diane Poole

“We used the ukulele to introduce the students to melody, harmony, and singing. You can’t teach all that with a recorder. That’s when I became obsessed with the ukulele and started trying to incorporate everything I had ever learned on guitar onto the ukulele.”


Cygrymus’ foray into the festival community began with two trips to the Tampa Bay Ukulele Getaway in Florida—first as an attendee and then as a performer. His new career as a solo ukuleleist began to take off. “I could not believe the wonderful, positive feedback I received—much more than I ever had playing in local clubs in Pittsburgh,” he says. “I’d never in my life imagined anything like that.”

Professional players Bob Tigert and Lisa Webb soon invited Cygrymus to play gigs in Nashville and Memphis. “I was traveling, playing music, and meeting all these great people. That’s what I wanted to do in my 20s,” he says. “Who’d have thought it would happen with this wonderful little instrument? It really does bring people together.”

If You Build It, They Will Come

Thirty miles north of Duluth, Minnesota, near the crystalline waters of Lake Superior, lies the sleepy town of Silver Creek. Sleepy, that is, until August of each year when hundreds of enthusiastic ukulele lovers descend upon the tiny township to attend the Silver Creek International Ukulele Carnival.

Silver Creek International Ukulele Carnival attendees
Silver Creek International Ukulele Carnival attendees

Al Anderson and Dale Moe formed the Two Harbors Ukulele Group (THUG) in 2010. Like many forward-thinking ukulele groups, after just one year in existence THUG decided to host a festival. It started small, but momentum built up quickly. “The first year, we had 30 attendees, including our members. The next year was 70, and the following year 110,” says Moe. “Fast-forward to 2023, and over 400 folks attended the festival’s Saturday night concert.”

According to Moe, the Carnival has become so popular in the last 13 years because of the sense of community the festival creates. “Through friends, like Minnesota’s own Ukester Brown, spreading the word, we are now attracting people from throughout the United States and three Canadian provinces. And these festival folks have become family.”

The annual festival is only one of THUG’s endeavors. “We are not a strum-along group—we are a performance group, playing 60 events last year at nursing homes and festivals,” says Moe. “Like our festival, our performance group is a community effort.” This year’s Carnival is August 15–18.

Zing Went the 4-Strings

The story of Alan Ferentz and Christine Rock Weber began at a ukulele festival in a California seaside town. If one were to write them into a ukulele romance novel, it might read something like this: Both possessed a deep passion for the ukulele. As they strummed, they discovered their hearts were harmonizing as beautifully as their instruments. In the enchanting world of the ukulele, their love story unfolded.

Alan Ferentz and Christine Rock Weber at the Memphis Uke-N-Roll Jamboree
Alan Ferentz and Christine Rock Weber at the Memphis Uke-N-Roll Jamboree

 “I met Alan while taking his ukulele class at a local community college,” says Rock Weber. “He invited me to the San Diego Ukulele Festival in 2011. The energy and sense of community blew me away.” Over the next 13 years, the couple attended more ukulele festivals, retreats, and campouts than they can count on both their hands and feet together.

“Playing and singing together bonds a relationship in an extraordinary way,” says Ferentz. Their circle of ukulele friends grew with each festival they attended together. 

“We’ve also made friends with many festival instructors,” says Rock Weber. “They’ll come to our house and stay with us, and we’ve become friends. You don’t find that in other music circles.”

All In the Funky Family

Funky Frets is an aptly named music store. The quirky ukulele boutique and music shop in historic Boyertown, Pennsylvania opened in 2012, and is a quintessential example of a family run business. Curt and Bernadette Sheller, along with their daughter, Kelly Thompson, own and operate the shop and produce the annual Funky Frets Ukulele Festival. The trio developed their business and festival by treating everyone like extended family.

Members of Pop Up Uke online ukulele group
Members of Pop Up Uke meet for the first time in-person at the Funky Frets Festival in Boyertown, PA.

“We started some uke jams and special events, and every time, my mom would make baked goods and put snacks out,” says Thompson. “People would say they had never been to a uke jam where food was out. They’d say they felt treated like family. That’s where that initial feeling of welcoming comes from—you throw food in, and everyone loves it.”

But it isn’t just the offer of free food that draws ukulele players to the music store and festival. “The thing I enjoy the most about our festival is the ongoing friendships made at the event,” says Thompson. “You’ll see folks who have met at our festival creating a cappella videos together online and returning year after year. I never imagined people would come from out of state for our festival. And then to see so many new friendships made is cool!” To become part of the Funky Frets family, you can attend the ninth annual Funky Frets Festival October 3–6.

Jump Into the Deep End

Cynthia Landon wanted to learn guitar, but it seemed difficult. So she Googled the phrase what’s easier to play than guitar?, and found the ukulele. The next day, she bought her first ukulele at Uke Republic, a ukulele emporium in the Atlanta, Georgia, suburb of Austell, and attended her first uke festival soon after, a one-day event in Chatsworth, Georgia. A year after taking up the instrument, she jumped into the deep end of the ukulele pool by attending her first big festival in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “By then,” she says, “I was addicted.”

Cynthia Landon with Jake Shimabukuro
Cynthia Landon with Jake Shimabukuro

Since beginning her ukulele journey, Landon has attended an impressive number of festivals. Her ukulele travels have taken her to Jake’s Ukulele Time in Nashville, the L.A. Ukulele Festival, Reno Uke Fest, and the Tampa Bay Ukulele Cruise. A recent trip to Hawaii saw her hanging with ukulele luminaries Bryan Tolentino, Sarah Maisel, Herb Ohta, Jr., and even Jake Shimabukuro. 

Out of all her musical adventures in the past few years, she says the best thing
the ukulele has done for her is getting her to lead her own group, a ukulele play-along at her local library. “It forced me to practice the songs and to learn to be a better singer,” she says. “I told myself I’m just going to do this and see what happens—and keep doing it every day.”

From Retirement to Reentrant

“The festivals were like a family reunion of people I had never met before in person,” says Jonathan Levy, who picked up a ukulele—his first instrument of any kind—in 2018, and attended his first festival in 2019 just before the pandemic shutdown.

Jonathan Levy with his ukuleles
Jonathan Levy realizes he has Ukulele Acquisition Syndrome

Ironically, during the pandemic Levy began meeting the people online who would soon populate his fledgling musical world. “What opened up the ukulele community to me was when I discovered the Zoom group Pop Up Uke,” he says. (Full disclosure: This is a group I started in 2020 and continue to lead.) “There was a lot of banter and getting to know one another in the weekly sessions. The first time I showed up, I thought, where did all these people come from? Plus, there was all this socializing—I had Zoomed in to learn something, not chit-chat! But in the end, what kept me coming back was the socializing and getting to know my fellow ‘Poppers.’”


Being part of this new ukulele community, Levy was determined to tackle his fear of singing in public. “I was terrified of the idea of singing in public. After six months of online voice lessons, I gained the skill and confidence to at least dip my toe in the water and led my first song at a jam.”

The next few years saw Levy traveling to numerous ukulele events, including the Gaithersburg Ukulele Festival, the Kentucky Uke Fest in Lexinigton, and the Funky Frets Uke Fest, where Levy met many of his online friends in person for the first time.

By the end of 2023, he had retired as a sales manager for IBM and decided to go all-in with his passion for music. His new jobs include the Buckeye Ukulele Society (BUkS) leader, publicity and media chair for the Columbus Folk Music Society, and Central Ohio Folk Festival committee member. He also teaches ukulele lessons at a local library.

Mr. Wednesday Night

One night many years ago, Greg Gent had a dream. He was sitting on a lakeside dock playing the ukulele. In his waking life, he had never even held a ukulele. But eventually, Gent bought both a lakeside house and a ukulele. From that obscure dream, he now lives a real ukulele dream, traveling to several festivals each year and hosting play-alongs in his popular style.

Greg Gent, Mr. Wednesday Night, hosts his weekly online UKULELE jam
Greg Gent, Mr. Wednesday Night, hosts his weekly online jam.

Acquiring some skills via YouTube, Gent joined a small ukulele group in Winter Park, Florida. He says, “The group grew from six to 30 players. Things were progressing until Covid hit.” Gent had an idea to create an online presence so the local group could continue playing and socializing. Within a few years, his weekly online Facebook play-alongs would attract hundreds of players worldwide. “People want to play, people want to learn, and people want to socialize,” he says. “When people join the live Facebook feed, they chat. I view how successful each session is by the amount of chatter. I’ll often see upwards of 1,200 chat messages during the show, with people catching up with each other and sharing playing tips. That, to me, shows the community aspect of the ukulele world.”

Under the moniker Ukulele Gent, he hosts one-hour Wednesday night play-alongs that have exploded in popularity over the past year. He also hosts the Jam@Gents Facebook page, where folks are encouraged to post videos of their playing. “People learn a lot in preparing to record and post a video,” says Gent. “They don’t post their first crack at it. They’ll practice getting a good take before they are ready to share a video. This practice makes people better musicians—they’ve worked on something long enough to be proud to put it out there.”

After the pandemic, Gent began attending ukulele events, including the Memphis
Uke-N-Roll, Blue Ridge Ukulele Festival in Morganton, North Carolina, and the Funky Frets Uke Fest. This led to leading workshops and play-alongs at festivals in Tampa and Nashville. “I’m really surprised how people can form meaningful relationships through their mutual love of the ukulele, not only in person but also online,” he says.

In November, he returns for his second stint as a presenter on the Tampa Bay Ukulele Getaway Cruise, only this time many will know him as “Mr. Wednesday Night.”

Welcome to the Tribe

No single instrument has the same power to impart the sense of community that is shared by ukulele players. Case in point, there has recently been a shift in the ukulele festival paradigm where many people attend more so to reunite and play with each other than for the workshops or performances. In the ukulele tribe, everyone gets to make music, not just the professionals. The decision to play the instrument begins a remarkable, life-altering excursion into musical creativity, new friendships, and a genuine community-building experience.