The jam session at the Penny Lane Music Emporium in Fort Lauderdale is probably one of the few musical gatherings in South Florida where senior citizens and teenagers play out of the same songbook.
About 20 people of all ages stand or sit in a circle, strumming ukuleles. Each of them has one eye on the sheet music, the other on their host, Ty Olopai.
"Beginners, when they pick it up, learn music in a minute,” says Olopai.
Olopai is the founder of the Florida Ukulele Network -- or F.U.N. for short. He started the non-profit about five years ago. Its original six members used to play together at Olopai's local Starbucks until the group outgrew the space. The network now boasts about 500 members.
Olopai is also the chief organizer of the Ukulele Fest South Florida, a two-day event featuring workshops and performances by nationally known ukulele artists. This year’s festival starts tonight at ArtServe in Fort Lauderdale.
The ukulele – or “uke” as it’s commonly called – is a small stringed instrument resembling a miniature guitar. For generations it’s been regarded as little more than a novelty. But now the ukulele is riding a wave of popularity across the nation.
“It's very powerful. It's not just a toy anymore," says Olopai.
In Delray Beach, Tavit Smith and his wife Lynn recently began hosting a similar ukulele jam. The first month, about 50 people signed up.
"It's just a fun instrument. It's easy to play, it's easy to transport. And you can play any genre of music,” says Smith.
The ukulele had really never been taken all that seriously. How could it be, when the performer most closely associated with it was the unabashedly strange Tiny Tim in the 1960s? But with artists like Eddie Vedder, Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars playing the uke, the instrument has a new following.
Many beginners say they were inspired to take up the instrument after viewing a 2006 YouTube video of ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro playing George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." The video garnered 12 million views, made Shimabukuro an overnight sensation and earned the humble uke some hard-won respect.
Penny Lane Music Emporium owner Armando Zuppa says he noticed ukuleles started flying off the shelves about four years ago.
"America was going through a recession. And people couldn't afford expensive guitars. But the ukulele was small. It was portable and affordable,” says Zuppa.
The National Association of Music Merchants, which tracks musical instrument sales trends, says ukulele sales doubled between 2009 and 2012. And music stores across the country say the demand for ukes is fueling a market for other stringed instruments, including acoustic guitars, mandolins and even banjoes.
Fort Lauderdale marketing executive Laura Sturaitis already had a guitar at home, but never really bonded with it that way she has with her ukulele. And although the instrument evokes images of the swaying palm trees and beaches of Hawaii, when Sturaitis plays the uke, she hears South Florida.
"On the surface, it looks easy, breezy, sunny and fun. But if you get into it, you see the complexity, you see the diversity and you see the community and you fall in love."
Third Annual Ukulele Fest South Florida, Friday, March 28 and Saturday, March 29. ArtServe Theater, 1350 E. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. For more information, visit UkuleleFestSouthFlorida.com, FloridaUkuleleNetwork.org.
Delray Beach Ukulele Meet-Ups, April 8 and April 22, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m., Delray Beach Public Library, 100 W. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach. For more info, contact Tavit Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.