NEEDMORE — A Lutheran minister, a Chicago police officer and an old hippie are standing in a field — listening to a good friend on stage play the ukulele.
It’s not an opening to a bad joke. It’s what was happening for days off the beaten path of Plum Creek Road in early June.
There are genres of music that inspire followings and festivals. But the people who show up each year to the Ukulele World Congress are not connected to a genre, just to one another.
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There are no vendors or entry fees. Everything on the field — from the Porta-Johns to the sawhorses for directing traffic — were either made by participants over the years or paid for through crowdfunding, or the generosity of organizer Mike “Mainland Mike” Hater, of Mainland Ukuleles in Nashville.
“I consider it my advertising budget for the year, and my vacation for the year,” he said. “Even if I lost 100 percent of the cash I put into it, I’d still do it.”
The Ukulele World Congress gatherings began in 2009 after Mainland Mike posted an invitation for a small get-together on ukuleleunderground.com. He expected around 30 people, but more than 100 asked to come.
Each year, the gathering grows. But it’s not just the event that gets bigger, so does the community of friends who may only have ukuleles in common.
“It’s a tribe with an open door,” said Rachel Manke, a first-time Ukulele World Congress participant.
People share food, drinks and music. They pass out stickers, bracelets and other mementos. Anyone they don’t already know is soon a new friend.
The main stage is “open mic” on Friday and Saturday nights. In fact, open mic is the only kind of performance there is.
Each person can sign up for two songs — no more — whether they are world-famous or a child who is brand new to the ukulele.
“It’s great. It’s my party, and I don’t know what’s going to make my night and what I’m going to see,” Mainland Mike said.
And then there are the jam sessions among the tents, springing up anywhere a couple ukuleles are playing — and there are ukuleles everywhere.
Tents start going up the weekend before, said Susan “Sukie” Dieseth, who has been to all eight Ukulele World Congress events. For this one in early June, she had been in the field since that Wednesday.
“I want to see my friends,” she said. “I come for the people.”
There are no paid workshops, said Narciso “Seeso” Lobo.
“Workshops” at Ukulele World Congress are what evolves when someone asks a more experienced player for tips.
Ken Middleton is a retired high school music teacher from England who makes a living playing and teaching and working with ukuleles. He flew to Brown County to play for free and relax with friends for his second Ukulele World Congress so far.
Middleton has played other instruments over the years, but has played the ukulele since he was 6.
Looking like a tiny guitar, it’s a versatile instrument, handling anything from old standards of the Big Band era to modern rock songs.
“The other thing that makes the ukulele — I think — unique, is the way people get together in groups, and the level of skill doesn’t really matter,” he said. “What they meet for is to enjoy themselves.”
Thom Pallozola — lead ukulele for Flea Bitten Dawgs, a band that recently completed a European tour — and Manke — a Lutheran minister on sabbatical who has played the popular “Prairie Home Companion” radio show — make their livings playing ukulele.
For others at Ukulele World Congress, the ukulele is a hobby — or an amateur obsession.
Jennifer “Yoga Jen” Lowe — who flies in from Australia — started playing ukulele in 2006 as a way to get back into music after her son finished high school.
Her first year at Ukulele World Congress, in 2010, Lowe came with Pallozola, who lives in St. Louis. Lowe had met him over the Internet while exploring ukulele music.
Lowe didn’t want to play on stage, so Pallozola and his friend Dave Henry Spangler — the second ukulele in Flea Bitten Dawgs — worked with her and backed her up on stage.
“Anyone who knows more than you is just here to take you to the next level,” Lowe said.
Where other musicians might hesitate to let someone pick up their instrument, ukulele players are as likely to insist they do, Lowe said. She offered her ukulele as demonstration.
“There will be people who come here with no intention to get taught, and come away knowing something,” said Derrick Shertz, who has been coming for seven years. “It tends to pull in people who are very friendly and open.”
Ego “doesn’t really play” at Ukulele World Congress, Shertz said.
“Tribe” is a word several Ukulele World Congress folks use to describe themselves.
Shertz’s wife, Christine, said she doesn’t worry about her children — Katharine and Michael — when they are out around the camp visiting. Camping with the Ukulele World Congress folks in the field is actually a time she can simply relax.
“They know to check in. I have to feed them,” she quipped.
For the Shertzes, who come from West Lafayette, Ukulele World Congress is their yearly family camping trip.
The children take hikes in the Brown County wilderness and wade through Plum Creek, catching up with friends they have made over the years.
And the children get to be part of the music too. Katherine and Michael were on stage Friday, covering Vance Joy’s “Riptide.”
Middleton never would have traveled to North America if not for the ukulele, and it has made him friends from all over the world.
“I’d be hard pressed to find a country outside of Africa that I don’t know somebody from,” he said.
Seeso, a moderator on ukuleleunderground.com, has been coming from Chicago since the first UWC.
That first year, a friend he had never met in person drove from Cincinnati to pick him up, then drove him home after, he said. That kind of generosity and helpfulness is common in their tribe.
Seeso wears a pair of tie-dyed overalls to UWC each year, inspired by Mainland Mike.
“He’s an overall guy, and he’s a hippie,” Seeso said.
Getting to know Mainland Mike and his wife, Tookta Chaiyasit, explains a lot of what sets Ukulele World Congress apart from even other ukulele gatherings, he said.
“Like a team takes on the character of its coach, so did Ukulele World Congress take on the character of Mainland Mike and Tookta,” he said.
Video highlights from June 4 at Ukulele World Congress 8: