Summertime Uke Love-In at New Jersey Club’s Fest

By Heidi Swedberg

(From time to time, ace ukester Heidi Swedberg checks in with reports from her travels. Apologies for the lateness of this one; problems on our end, not hers! —Blair J., Editor, Ukulele)

On Friday, Aug. 23, the Morristown Uke Jam club welcomed about 150 happy participants to the Ukranian American Cultural Center in Whippany, New Jersey, with a Woodstock-themed play-and-sing-along. (The 50th anniversary of Woodstock was the previous week.) The costumed club, including FiL Wisneski on percussion, Bob Kammer on bass, and Beth Bachmann leading vocals, set a happy tone for the three-day ukulele love-in. PDFs of the songs performed were made available in advance, so everyone had a chance to get their game on ahead of time. The result was groovy.

A row of vendors greeted participants as they entered the hall with hand-crafted accessories and beautiful instruments.  Deb Bassett had ukulele-themed laser-engraved wood items, straps were offered by the Hug Strap and leather artist Liz Olney, Curt Sheller of Funky Frets installed strap buttons for those in need and supplied a variety of instruments and accessories. Debi Velasco offered colorful fabric and floral creations, and on Saturday, shared her craft by leading a workshop in lei making.

Lei-making with Debi Velasco

That evening, Gerald Ross and Rachel Manke performed to an enthusiastic audience that included a busload of children from the Holy Family Summer Camp. Sponsored by a grant from Rutgers University, the kids are learning ukulele, and were delighted by the show.


All-day workshops were offered on Saturday, and participants had the difficult task of choosing among four workshops taught by Gerald Ross, Rachel Manke, Christopher Davis-Shannon, Daniel Ward, Heidi Swedberg, Frank Sole, Dave Kleiner, Debi Velasco, Mark Dutton, Ro Foster, Uncle Zac, Tyler St. Clare and Al Foster. 

Then, the Morristown Uke Jam, led by Mark Dutton, once again brought down the house with its ukestrated performance of “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen. Saturday night featured  Christopher Davis-Shannon, Daniel Ward, and Heidi Swedberg along with the winners of the open mic competition. Melissa Nannen and her daughter Kara sang a beautiful rendition of the New Orleans chestnut “Iko-Iko,” and the One-Uke Wonders pulled off  the weekend’s most talked-about feat: Five players covering “Somebody That I Used to Know” on a single soprano ukulele, à la Walk Off the Earth.

Should the five-person mauling of a soprano uke be banned… or just enjoyed?

The Morristown Green was the site of the final Sunday sing-along wrapping up the event, and the beautiful weather made the gathering a delight.  Along with community leaders, teachers and performers led the crowd in joyful noise. 

Journalist and ukulele player Kevin Coughlin (who was also our volunteer native guide for the weekend) wrote about every aspect of the event for, and posted great photos and videos. “What divine madness!” Coughlin said. “It’s like a preview of the world when everyone finally beats their swords into ukuleles.”

The festival, in its seventh year, is a production of The Folk Project, and was organized by Pam Robinson, along with an amazing committee of volunteers, including Wisneski. It’s a tight but happy ship, and the event’s many moving parts came off without a visible hitch. With 2019 successfully in the books, one question remains: What’s in store for 2020?

Rachel Manke (center) plays cups on the back of her uke during an outdoor jam. That’s Christopher Davis-Shannon on the left and Heidi Swedberg and Daniel Ward to the right.