Zoom will keep (has kept) us together

The Raleigh Uke Jam will play in person Saturday, a welcome sign of normalcy

Saturday afternoon, eight or 12 or 20 or so people will park at a church in North Raleigh. Each of us will take a chair and a music stand and an instrument to a socially distanced spot in the parking lot. After exchanging greetings and catching up on how we’ve been, we’ll fire up our tablets, put on our masks, playing ukuleles and singing for a couple of hours.

We’ll play some Dylan, CCR, Buddy Holly, and maybe some Queen or Bruno Mars or Dolly Parton. Occasionally, we’ll play well. But we'll have a great time. We’ll joke and share stories and enjoy each other’s company. And we’ll tell each other (perhaps silently, but probably not) how much we’ve missed being together in person, and how much we look forward to doing it regularly again.

The group is the Raleigh Uke Jam, an informal outfit that, before COVID-19, met twice monthly in a meeting room at an Episcopal Church. And played at senior centers and street fairs and a bar. We’ve been together 7½ years. But for the past 12 months, like so many other social and commercial organizations, we’ve been together apart.

With a few exceptions, we’ve “met” on Zoom, with one mic open and everyone else playing along at home, listening to the player and themselves. (Tiring of Zoom, we had a socially distanced anniversary party late last summer and a couple of other parking lot jams before the weather got too cold.) We’ve also had virtual “open mics,” with a person performing solo and the others listening and enjoying.

But Saturday promises to be different, more hopeful, a sign of a comeback from COVID. For a couple of hours, we can imagine what it will be like to sit next to one another, hear each other(!), and sound enough like a unit to perform a call-and-response song like “California Dreamin’” so it isn’t embarrassing.

And, perhaps, envision playing once again for a group of nursing home residents or adult day center participants or weeknight bar patrons. Something approaching a return to normal.

Uke Jam history

Raleigh residents David Simpson and Rick Higgens carpooled to Durham a couple times a month to join the High Strung Uke Jam in a neat, funky music store near the Duke University campus. After making the post-rush-hour schlep for several months, they wondered if there were enough uke players in Raleigh to start a jam here.

I may be botching the sequence here, but David posted a query on MeetUp. He was talking about the jam at his community pool, and it turned out that a friend, the pastor of a nearby church, was there. She was willing to let the group use space (for free!) a couple of nights a month. 

David’s daughter set up a Facebook page and a blog. The first North Raleigh Uke Jam was Oct. 3, 2013. While David says he never knew if anyone other than him, his daughter, and Rick would show up, 21 people dropped by! 

The group crowdsourced a songbook using online chord and tablature charts, printed and stashed in three-ring binders. People spread the word, others (like me) ran across the group via Google search, and, spontaneously, we formed our own “little platoon.”

I joined in July 2014, about nine months after I began playing. I was awful, but because I was playing with others, I’ve learned and improved. (I also took voice lessons for several months pre-pandemic. Highly recommended even if you’re a weekend screecher.)

Thanks to the uke jam, I’ve set roots here. The friendships I’ve made and general camaraderie made us hesitant to relocate to a less-costly area when I left Carolina Journal. Otherwise, we probably would have moved.

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As word about the now-Raleigh Uke Jam spread, we got requests to play at nursing homes. We did, gladly! The adult day center(s) where my wife works asked us to perform for the participants whenever we can (we do a fantastic Christmas gig, including singalongs).

An owner of Pelagic Beer and Wine, a bottle shop in Raleigh’s Oakwood community, is one of David’s former colleagues. He asked us to play one Tuesday a month when business is slow. Things picked up.

The women who started the monthly Raleigh Night Market downtown invited us to play. We did for about a year until the market got so big (more than 5,000 visitors) that we were overwhelmed by the ambient noise. (We don’t have a PA system, though a few of us have tiny portable amps.)

The great folks at PineCone, the Piedmont Council for Traditional Music, have listed our jams in their monthly newsletter.

I basically started handling most promotions and social media, with the help of David’s wife Donna (the Instagrammer). We’ve uploaded the songbook to Dropbox, so people can carry it around on a tablet, saving trees and ink.

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We have 80 people on our email list. “The group” has a couple of tweens, a few folks in their 80s, and all ages in between. Some drive more than an hour to join us. 

We’ve outgrown our original classroom space and now meet in a social hall on church grounds that could handle 80 people, no sweat. We’ve had as many as 38. (We pass the hat each time and deliver our love offering to the church with thanks.)

Meantime, David and Rick Higgens and a couple of other guys formed their own uke band, “Far From Done,” who play local festivals and breweries and the like and get a few bucks. They’re good, a lot of fun, and worth seeing. (They rehearse!)

None of these things happened by design. We aren’t pros. We don’t practice together. We invite anyone who wants to play — even those who just picked up the instrument — to sit in.

We just meet and strum and sing. To this day, David and I don’t know how many people will show up when we jam or when we perform for an audience. Our goal is to have fun and hope people will come back next time. Many do.

We’re satisfying a desire that no one knew existed, and have created a community along the way.

The jam has offered a sense of belonging. Even COVID couldn’t snuff it out. We’ve Zoomed. In late December we played Christmas songs in the parking lot of my wife’s day center (it was unseasonably warm, thank goodness).

When the church allows full indoor access, regular jams will resume. When Pelagic fully reopens, they want us back.

But we won’t forget how much we missed the fellowship and contact, and will appreciate the chance again to make a joyful noise (but pick the right key, and stay in tune!).

(We post videos on the Facebook page, and we have a YouTube channel. For the “finished product,” visit them … with trepidation.)