DECATUR — The ukulele is a happy instrument, local musicians say.
“You can’t be sad playing the ukulele,” said Renee Cadman, founder of the Decatur Area Ukelele Group.
The ukulele has been a popular instrument for many well-known guitarists such as Eric Clapton, George Harrison and Eddie Vedder, but that is not the appeal for many local ukulele players.
Carl Leslie, 71, is one of the more experienced ukulele players. He owned one as a small boy, but didn’t play it again until his wife pulled it from a closet 50 years later. “Retirement and more time to play, and I have a lot of fun,” he said. “I learn more and try an improve.”
Those interested in learning more about the fun, little guitar-like instrument are invited to join Decatur Area Ukulele Group, or DAUG, at 7 p.m. on the first Wednesday of the month, at Door 4 Brewing Co. Members of the group say they attend the monthly meetings because they are enjoyable. From children to seniors, some are new to the ukulele while others are more experienced players.
“If you know two or three chords, you can get into a groove and play,” Cadman said.
Keith Benting, 62, bought a ukulele five years ago with the intention of learning through online lessons, but after playing with a Bloomington group, he learned of DAUG: “We have a pretty good group here,” he said.
Ukuleles come in four sizes, soprano, concert, tenor and baritone. “I’ve got three, so I can bring a spare,” Benting said.
Cadman started DAUG in December 2016, and the group's first jam session was Christmas songs with just a few musicians. The ukulele players began with selections from a songbook, "but some of the songs were dated and we didn’t know them,” she said.
The group began playing more popular songs that were better known to the musicians, from jazz, rock, folk to Hawaiian. Their song list features music titles such as the Beatles’ “Hard Days Night” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.”
“Some of them we can do fairly well, and others are painful, but we’ll keep going," said Cadman, who noted the musicians gather for their shared joy of the music. “We’re not here for a concert. We’re here to learn and play together.”
Gary Simms began playing the ukulele two years ago after playing the guitar, upright bass and harmonica for more than 20 years.
“I don’t play them very well, but I do play them,” said Sims, who brought his baritone ukulele to the last month’s meeting. “You go where the music is."
Members of the group describe the meetings as educational. Other ukulele groups have formed in Champaign and Bloomington-Normal, but Cadman and her husband, Chris, had a difficult time traveling to the out-of-town meetings and decided to create their own group in Decatur.
“We can’t be the only people in town who do this,” Cadman said at the time.
The couple first began playing six years ago after Chris found a used ukulele during a vacation in Hawaii. “He fell in love with it,” she said.
Cadman, 55, began playing the ukulele three years later. Her previous musical experience consisted of music lessons in middle school and singing in the church choir. She would often tag along to other ukulele sessions with her husband. Chris had grown up playing classical violin. “But I hadn’t played in years,” he said.
According to DAUG members, the instrument is easy to play with only four strings. “And I have only four fingers,” Cadman said.
In a short time, Cadman has learned to love the ukulele as much as her husband.
“She is better than she thinks she is,” he said.
Simms enjoys DAUG meetings because of the range in experience. “We have everything from professionals to intermediate to raw beginners,” he said. “I don’t want to be a professional, I just want to have fun.”
For those who want to test out the instruments, members often bring extra ukuleles.
Chuck Shonkwiler visited the group because he wanted to try out a ukulele. He had played guitar in the past, so he borrowed one of Cadman’s ukuleles during his first meeting. “She invited me to use her baby,” he said.
Shonkwiler followed along with the other musicians.
“I was succeeding and kind of keeping up,” he said. “But as long as the song doesn’t have more than three chords I should be okay.”
DAUG meets at various locations throughout Decatur, including Brew Works and Doherty’s Pub & Pins. As the group grew, venues changed, and it now meets at Door 4 Brewing Co.
Ukulele players sit among the restaurant and bar patrons playing and singing the music. Customers and staff have been known to sing or clap along.
“It’s either that or we drive them away,” Renee Cadman said.