Human Interest

Cheerful, upbeat fourstringed strumming filled the air with music at Oak Creek Espresso Aug. 9.

The Village Ukulele People was celebrating its first birthday with cake, balloons and laid-back jams. About 15 people, ukes in hand, gathered for the event during the group’s regular weekly meeting.

They filled out nearly half of one of the coffee shop’s rooms, pulling tables together to sit side-by-side and strum their songs.

From a cheerful rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to a tonguein-cheek performance of “Happy Birthday,” the Village Ukulele People ran the gamut of their varied songbook — and even played a new song together for the first time: Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.”

On any given week they play an assortment of songs spanning genres, including rock, blues, contemporary pop and folk.

“It’s been a really fun, amazing thing that we both feel really proud of,” Vicki Payne, one of the group’s founders, said of her and fellow founder Cathy Gazda.

“The ukulele is such an inclusive instrument,” Gazda said. “You don’t have to have any musical background.”

The jam started a year ago when Gazda, Payne and Aurelia Simon decided to meet weekly to practice ukulele between their monthly lessons with the Sedona Ukulele Posse. From there, it was about
finding a place to meet.

While some venues told them no outright, Oak Creek Espresso owner Diana Hughmanick welcomed the jam with open arms.

“She already hosts first Friday open mic,” which several Village Ukulele People participate in every month, Gazda said, “and is really into supporting the arts and music.”

The group has drawn in other members of the Village of Oak Creek coffee joint community, too, like the 5-year-old daughter of Solana Tao of Ren Tao Coffee Roasters, which has staked out a corner of Oak Creek Espresso for its roaster.

After starting with just five members at their first meeting, there are now more than 50 on the group’s roster, though they average 15 to 20 attending on a weekly basis. The jam gets out-of-town visitors dropping in pretty regularly, too, whether it’s a couple from upstate New York spending time in Sedona or a woman from New Mexico stopping by.

“We had no idea when we started it would grow like this,” Payne said.

“We were just happy that we had a few people who liked to play and we could play together every week,” Gazda said.

While ukuleles are the focus of the group — it is in the name, after all — they aren’t the only instrument represented. Their oldest member, in his 90s, plays saxophone professionally and brings his skills to the jam, and several of their songs are accompanied by kazoos, train whistles and tambourines.

“You can be having a really stressful day, and come and strum the ukulele a bit, and all the stress just melts away,” Gazda said.

The Village Ukulele People meet every Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. at Oak Creek Espresso. Meetings are free and open to all, regardless of skill level, and there’s often an extra ukulele waiting for a newcomer.

“You just have to come with a happy heart,” Payne said. Gazda added, “And even if your heart’s not happy, it’ll be happy when you leave.”


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