Find Your Ideal Ukulele Event with Help from Top Uke Fest Visionaries

From the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY HEIDI SWEDBERG

Ukulele events big and small are popping up all over the United States and the world. Whether you are a curious first-time player or a pro, there are great things to be garnered when you gather with other ukulele players.  What follows is a who’s who of festival organizers and anonymous attendees giving us the
what-where-when-why-and-hows of ukulele events.


Marianne Brogan Uke FestMarianne Brogan
Portland, Oregon
Portland Ukulele Festival; Port Townsend Ukulele Festival; Menucha Ukulele Band Camp
“I want the event to be a great learning opportunity, but also make time for community, collaboration, and serendipity.”

Ben Hassenger Uke FestBen Hassenger
East Lansing, Michigan
Mighty Uke Day; Midwest Uke Camp; Uketoberfest
“Each year, we are able to do more to bring music to underfunded and underserved programs for children and adults.”

Elaine De Man Uke FestElaine de Man
St. Helena, California
Wine Country Ukulele Festival; West Coast Ukulele Retreat; Camp Oo-Koo-Lay-Lay
“I design the event around the place, which is why each one is unique. Excellent instruction is first and foremost wrapped into a rollicking good time.”

Thomas Hood Uke FestThomas Hood
Tampa Bay, Florida
Tampa Bay Ukulele Getaway (TBUG)
“The venue needs to accept that there are going to be lots of people playing ukulele everywhere. We typically take over the place for the weekend. ”

Alison Jarvis Uke FestAlison Jarvis
Cheltenham, England
Ukulele Festival of Great Britain
“It was only through pure cheekiness, and the human approach, that I succeed at this.”


Douglas Reynolds Uke FestDouglas Reynolds
Reno, Nevada
Reno Ukulele Festival; Palm Strings Ukulele Festival; Luongo Ukulele Experience
“There is no way I could pull off my festivals without my family in support.”


Lil Rev Uke FestLil’ Rev
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee Ukulele Festival
“Shazaam! It’s a lot of bang for the buck.”

Roy Sakuma Ukulele Festival of Hawaii
Sakuma, left, and young students at the Ukulele Festival of Hawaii.


In 197O, ukulele player and city groundskeeper Roy Sakuma was cleaning bathrooms at Waikiki’s Kapiolani Park when he had a dream—a free ukulele concert in the bandstand. He pulled together sponsors, city hall, and the Hawaii International Ukulele Club to put on a show highlighting the instrument’s versatility and virtuosity. Now in its 47th year, the Ukulele Festival Hawaii is the granddaddy of all festivals. Thousands attend the day-long festival, showcasing great performances by Hawaiian, mainland, and international talent, as well as an orchestra of more than 800 students, mostly children.

Roy’s vision provided inspiration for many ukulele lovers following in his footsteps. Uniquely balancing elements of performance, education, community, commerce, and camaraderie, the personalities of event organizers and the locations of their events give a broad range of choices to the enthusiast.

“In 2009, I was in Hawaii, and I stumbled upon a ukulele festival!” says Ben Hassenger. It was Roy Sakuma’s Ukulele Festival Hawaii and it lit a fire for Hassenger. “That night I decided to start the Lansing Area Ukulele Group.” In 2010, the documentary The Mighty Uke: The Amazing Story of a Musical Underdog was looking for places to host showings and Hassenger fit a May 2011 event in Lansing into their tour. “We called it ‘Mighty Uke Day.’ It was pretty low-key—no budget, no expectations. When it was all over, some folks came up to me and asked, ‘Well, what are we going to do next year?’”

Kevin Carroll's Ukestra Class out on the grounds of Asilomar.
Kevin Carroll’s Ukestra Class at Elaine de Man’s West Coast Ukulele Retreat.


In most musical genres, “music festival” is synonymous with “really big concert.” However, the ukulele world does not like to be pigeonholed. Some uke festivals take place in a single fun-packed day, offering all-inclusive packages or choices à la carte. Others spread out over three or four days with tracks of classes. Camps and retreats may focus primarily on immersion and education, with performance as an incidental component of the experience. Most popular get-togethers feature scheduled events including workshops, performances, strum-alongs, a community stage, and a marketplace. Each event describes and expresses itself uniquely.

“To me, a festival focuses on performance while a retreat focuses on participation. There’s a camaraderie  among the participants that’s created at a camp or retreat that I don’t think you will ever duplicate at a festival.”—Elaine de Man

“Mighty Uke Day is unique in that it is held in various locations in a ten-block section of the hip, funky community of Old Town Lansing. People can walk from venue to venue, stopping in the cool shops and restaurants along the way, meet up with others for informal jams, or just get away from it all for a while.”

—Ben Hassenger

“We call [TBUG] ‘the getaway‘ for a reason—we want them to get away from their normal everyday lives and spend a ukulele-infested weekend learning and being entertained.”—Thomas Hood

“Practicing at home alone, it can sometimes be hard to look up and see how far you’ve come. Taking on a week-long uke retreat to learn something with others is rewarding.”—Anon.


“We wanted the festival to showcase some of the world’s most talented players. It was important that the people who purchased tickets for our festival felt that they were equal to all performers and organizers and had every opportunity to play and learn.”—Alison Jarvis

“Camp Oo-Koo-Lay-Lay was born out of a conversation I had with James Hill. On our way to a family-friendly sing-along, he said that this was how it should be: The whole family playing and singing together. I thought about that for a while and decided to do Camp Oo-Koo-Lay-Lay with the purpose of creating an event the whole family would enjoy, and keeping it affordable”—Elaine de Man

Uke Performance, cocktails, ukulele marketplace, classroom, family, fun


Performance Opportunities
  • Concerts give performers a chance to share their passion and inspire the audience.
  • Community stages showcase new talent, and offer ukulele clubs and children’s groups a chance to work towards a common goal and show their stuff.
  • Open mics give people a chance to share a song or put new skills into practice in front of a supportive crowd.
Jams and Play-Alongs
  • For those who love to strum and sing, getting together in world- or even personal-record setting numbers is the greatest thrill of all.
Workshops  and Classes for All Levels
  • Absolute beginners are welcomed with classes teaching uke basics,  bringing them into the fold.
  • Continuing players find workshops to advance their playing abilities and tickle their fancies.
  • Advanced players are challenged and stimulated with high-level classes by master teachers.
  • Events and workshops for kids
  • Safe, comfortable, and appropriate space for your child
Unique Features
  • Flash Mobs
  • Cocktail or “Serendipity hour”
  • Dance parties
  • Community engagement or charitable connections
  • Meet luthiers who build dream machines by hand
  • Check out a wide range of instruments from manufacturers big and small
  • Get geared up with straps, bags, and strings
  • Inspire your ears with CDs and support performers you love.
  • Browse books and music
  • Find gifts or treat yourself!
  • Exciting raffles, offering chances to win instruments or gear.

“I go because I can geek-out over music and the ukulele with like-minded folks, many of whom have become some of the best friends I’ve ever had.”—Anon.

“Think about the teachers whom you’d most like to study with and/or hear perform. Retreats/festivals provide one of the single best opportunities to get to know nationally established ukulele educators.”—Lil’ Rev

 ”The Ukulele Festival of Great Britain is a non-profit organization, raising money for well-deserved charities.”—Alison Jarvis

“I’m always looking for level 4 or above … I’ve concentrated my learning with folks teaching specific styles, like Paul Hemmings for jazz and jazz theory, Daniel Ward for flamenco and chord connectivity, Adam Franklin for early swing styles, Casey MacGill for swing strum patterns. I also like the ‘ukestra’ arrangements that James Hill and Del Rey often bring.”—Anon.

“Serendipity hour is a way to meet the needs of attendees if there is some insight into a subject that isn’t being addressed in class. Its unique feature is that it bubbles up from interaction between faculty and students. It’s not planned. Cocktail hour resulted from attendees wanting to sing at the microphone with a terrific musician to back them up. It merged with open mic when we couldn’t find time in the schedule. I really wanted a break from being the MC, so I asked Casey MacGill to take over. He has a wonderful way of helping open-mic performers feel supported and valued, like ‘stars.’ A very happy accident driven by his unique talent.”

—Marianne Brogan

Thailand Ukulele Festival


Exotic locales, spirit-centering retreats, rustic digs, or your own backyard—there are choices to be made! In some events, like camps or retreats, the location itself is the headliner.

Local festivals give you the opportunity to experience the best your community has to offer, meet performers and instructors you might have heard amazing things about, and discover new heroes. Check out the open-mic possibilities for yourself or your group and become part of the show.

Enjoy traveling to foreign lands? There are festivals in Asia, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and all over the UK. Want to see America first? Choose your location, and then add “ukulele festival” to your search. Chances are something will turn up.

Here are a few considerations to keep in mind when planning a nearby or far-flung adventure:

All-Inclusive or à la carte? It may seem expensive, but if food and lodging are included in the price, it could be a bargain in the long run. Also, some festivals charge per event, so you can decide your own schedule, while others charge a single amount for an all-access pass.

Accommodations? Is there space for you  to park your RV nearby? Are you staying in a primitive tent or a five-star hotel? Private room or dormitory? Can you choose alternative off-site housing?

Other Attractions? Combine your trip with another travel purpose, such as business, visiting a relative, or whittling down your bucket-list. Make sure you schedule enough time to take in all your destination has to offer.

“We look for a variety of artists and workshops, with favorite artists and new ones; motor-home parking and RV park/campground; and easy online booking with a menu of workshop options and information follow-up.”—Anon.


“I’ll go to most any workshop or festival that is near my home. I’m not as picky about making certain that local venues are targeted for my specific learning needs. I will travel if the workshop content is what I need to help me get over a major hump in my learning or if I have been searching for specific content that will be presented at the venue.”—Anon.

“Nearer to home is better. I’m not likely to fly unless it is particularly compelling and I’m combining the trip with some other travel plans.”—Anon.


Want to bring some uke-mania to your community?  Our seasoned veterans have some advice!

“Prepare for endless preparatory work. Surrender to your event taking over your life. Don’t attempt it alone! You’ll need family or a dependable staff. Stay unique and creative. While there are some components that are common to all festivals, try to add something to your event that will make you stand apart.”

—Douglas Reynolds

“Plan, plan, plan! We have a festival committee and are now booked and scheduled for venue and artists one year in advance. Have a team together to handle all the various elements including: venue, artists, sound, lighting, food, ticket sales, graphics, marketing, vendors, etc.”—Thomas Hood

“In 2009, we went to the Ukulelehooley festival in Dublin, their first festival.We decided when we returned home that we should organize a ukulele festival to be held in Cheltenham. We had no money, sponsorship, or support in any direction—so we busked (Tony, Phil and Jude and myself) and managed to scrape up enough for  a deposit for the space. I phoned every music shop south of Birmingham to sponsor us.”—Alison Jarvis

“Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start small at first and let it grow organically. Surround yourself with helpful folks, delegate responsibly, and team up with a local uke group.”—Ben Hassenger

“The future of the ukulele festival is only going to grow, though festivals by nature will come and go. They are a heck of a lot of work to put on and require fiscally conservative organizers to tweak things as they go each year. It’s a great way to supercharge a city or state with uke-phoria.”—Lil’ Rev