The Wiener Ukulele Stammtisch brings amateur ukulele players together every month for an informal strum-and-sing meetup
On a Monday evening, in the nonsmoker backroom of the otherwise smoke-filled Cafe Einfahrt on the Karmelitermarkt, the 1. Wiener Ukulele Stammtisch (WUST) met up – as they do on the first Monday of each month – to play their tiny four-string instruments and sing along to a diverse repertoire of pop songs in English and German. Attendees at this informal meetup of ukulele enthusiasts range in gender, talent and age from a pre-teen beginner to Millennial hipsters to mature masters, yet there is no hierarchy among the two dozen or so monthly participants.
What they all have in common is a love for the ukulele, the joyous spirit that stems from singing and making music together and a sympathetic tolerance for each other’s imperfections.
A high point of the evening was when a few players spontaneously launched into David Bowie’s Space Oddity in tribute to the pop icon whose death was made public that morning. But any sorrowful feeling quickly dissipated with the next number, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – its cheerfully whistled refrain impossible to resist.
At the meetups, the warm-up number is always The Beatles’ Obladi Oblada and the evening’s set progresses anarchically through such fun gems as Theme from Rawhide, Ain’t She Sweet, and Banana Boat Song (Day-O). A few Wiener Lieder, such as Georg Danzer’s Anleitung zum Selbstmord, are thrown into the mix for some local flavor. WUST’s repertoire of songs has grown organically and has been assembled in an online “portfolio” of some 90 song lyrics and chord charts, made available to all 260 subscribers of the WUST newsletter.
Ukulele meetups have become a worldwide phenomenon. Professional musician turned wood sculptor, Michael Roselieb, launched WUST in Vienna in 2010. What started out as a handful of friends quickly grew in popularity (participation is free and open to all) and a bigger venue had to be found. This was no easy task, as there aren’t many cafés, bars or restaurants in Vienna that would be quiet enough, roomy enough and tolerant enough of the boisterous ensemble.
Not your grandma’s ukulele
The ukulele’s heyday was during the Jazz Age and its popularity continued into the late 1960s, when Tiny Tim performed his surreal take on Tiptoe Through the Tulips to TV audiences worldwide, thus relegating the instrument to kitschy artifact for the next thirty years.
But the instrument has enjoyed something of a resurgence in the last decade, thanks in large part to the posthumous success of Israel “Iz” Kamakawiwo’ole’s chart-topping medley of Somewhere over the Rainbow/It’s a Wonderful World.
The ukulele is affordable and quite portable. Compared to the guitar, the uke’s learning curve is much shorter – within your first few hours, you should be able to play dozens of songs – and its nylon strings and small-scale fretboard are easier on the fingers. One doesn’t need to read sheet music either – chord diagrams, lead sheets and tablature are widely available online and easy to follow, even for musical novices.
Having the pluck to go further
Vienna’s Ukulele Meetup presented their “first-annual” Vienna Ukulele Night festival last summer. Some members have even organized a weekend-long ukulele retreat in Yspertal later this month. With its growth, the group’s leaders are now forming a Verein (a nonprofit association) to further its mission, get sponsoring and limit the organizers’ liability. Gustav Elias, a long-time member who helps manage the club, says, “There is no obligation to become a club member in order to participate in the meetups, but donations are welcome!”
Anya Kaller, a middle-school music teacher who recently joined the meetup, was so impressed by the group’s spirit and the instrument’s accessibility that she introduced it to her third-form (13-year-old) students, whose parents agreed to buy them instruments (at a group discount).
“The first hour was just learning how to tune their instruments,” says Kaller. “By the second lesson, we’d learned the C-major chord and the kids’ faces lit up when they first heard the collective sound. Adding the G-major chord, we could then immediately play the first verse of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer! A few of her students even composed their own Christmas carol and the class performed for the teachers’ holiday party. “Some other teachers were so impressed, they started to learn as well!” boasts Kaller.
If music be the food of life, strum on!
“There is hardly anything more valuable than making our world more sonorous,” wrote Elias in his last group newsletter. “What would the world be without music? Without ukulele? Noisy! But without soul, feeling, life.”
As a way to bring amateur musicians together for some friendly sing-along jamming, the ukulele meetup is tough to beat.
Vienna Ukulele Meetup (Wiener Ukulele Stammtisch)
First Monday of every month, 19:00, at
Cafe Einfahrt: 2., (Karmelitermarkt)