Folk Project Festival Draws Ukulele Fans

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

It’s on the radio, a hit with artists and all over YouTube: the ukulele. For the second year in a row, The Folk Project’s festival for the four-string brings enthusiasts to Morristown.

Scott Ferguson, special concerts committee chair for The Folk Project, proposed the annual gathering. “It’s just gotten off the charts now, so I wanted to get ukulele people together,” he says. “I wanted to service the ukulele community.”

Yes, there is a ukulele community — and it’s substantial. New Jersey-based clubs meet up to jam, and new players are popping up all the time. Fans of the instrument like it for its versatility, size, comfortable nylon strings and quick learning curve.

Nicole Wilkins started playing just two weeks ago. “I used to play cello when I was younger, and I did try and take up the guitar,” she says. She decided to turn her attention to the ukulele. “I thought it was easier on my hands because I’m a massage therapist,” Wilkins explains.

Tony Kolega brought his son, Lukas. “We started with the guitar. It was a little big for him, but he liked the strumming and everything, so we decided to try the ukulele,” Tony says. Lukas took to it. “I like to play ‘Sunshine of Your Love,’ ‘Billie Jean,’ ‘Twist and Shout,’” says Lukas.

This renaissance has been dubbed the ukulele’s “third wave,” following its Jazz Age and Post-World War II spikes in popularity. Ferguson and other uke players thank husband-and-wife-team Jim and Liz Beloff for that.

“In workshops, I often say, ‘Be careful what you find at flea markets,’” Jim Beloff jokes.

One flea market purchase led to an entire life change for the Beloffs. Jim quit his job at Billboard Magazine and Liz left her position working on motion pictures.

“It seemed to me unfair that this instrument was pretty much off the pop culture radar,” Jim explains. “So it was just kind of a crazy idea and we thought it’s kind of like ‘If you build it, they will come’ — if we publish a songbook maybe someone will buy it… And we’ve been doing it now for about 22 years.” They’ve even become a resource for the likes of Bette Midler and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Jim’s brother-in-law also got in on the act, creating his own line of ukuleles.

The fans that’ve sprung from their work, like Geoff Rezek from Fairfield County, Connecticut, couldn’t be happier to have found their passion — and each other. “I’ve played the ukulele now for about 19 years, and I just love the ukulele,” he says. “And I want to meet people who enjoy life, and that’s what ukulele people are — they’re just nice people!”

In October, The Folk Project takes strings to the next step. Music lovers will set up camp for their annual three-day Acoustic Getaway.