Article and photos by Wendy Nugent
When some musicians play, they look extremely happy, with big ol? smiles on their faces, like they?re doing something they love.
Those same kinds of grins were on the mugs of players in the Newton Ukulele Tunes Society, or NUTS as they like to be called, while they rehearsed with singer Pam Barthell for a fundraiser they had planned to do in June for Peace Connections.
?It?s joyful for me,? NUTS member Barrick Wilson of Newton said about playing. ?The Hawaiian word for ukulele means jumping flea ? if you can imagine playing a jumping flea. For me, there?s hardly any novelty to it, but when we get going on a song, it?s a great feeling.?
Wilson has played this ?jumping flea? for more than 50 years.
?Barrick started playing ukulele the year I was born, and I didn?t start playing until I was 53,? said Marva Weigelt, 56, group founder and leader.
?She?s far better than I am,? Wilson said.
?And I can ?amen? that because she?s in my building,? Barthell said with a smile.
The group had rehearsal on an extremely warm day in June at The Carriage Factory Gallery in Newton, surrounded by colorful art and people who stopped to listen to the lively group that has members ranging in age from 22 to 71. Weigelt played a custom-made uke, while other players had instruments of various sizes. Weigelt?s uke was crowd funded by 50 people.
?You can specify every detail of it, and you have to wait a year for it,? she said. ?(The) tag inside says ?love? because this is a love ukulele.?
NUTS started in 2012 after then co-owner of Prairie Harvest, Becky Nickel, asked Weigelt to get ?uke? players together to perform Christmas carols and have a carol sing-along at the store in Newton. Weigelt estimated four to six players showed up for the event that took place around Thanksgiving.
?I was a newbie and had just started playing the year before,? Weigelt said. ?It was pretty ragged for a while.?
They then started having an open mike on the Third Thursday event in downtown Newton, either at Prairie Harvest or the Carriage Factory Gallery. They?ve also played at Peace Connections.
Now, the group has a number of core members, besides Weigelt and Wilson, including J.D. Lee, 27; Danny Barrera, 22; and Ray Nicodemus, 68.
?We love music,? Weigelt said. ?It?s kinda one of the highlights of my week is playing with you guys.?
The musicians have an ?interesting practice group,? Weigelt said. ?(We are) folks who are a little obsessed with music and can show up every week.?
They call their core group Handful of NUTS, while those who show up at a jam session are assimilated into NUTS.
?They become NUTS when they show up with a ukulele,? Weigelt said.
Uke players ranging in age from 4 through their 80s have jammed with them. The largest number they?ve had at a session is around 10.
One girl, who was 8, was watching the group, and someone told her she should?ve brought her ukulele. She said she did, and it was hidden under a table. They tuned her uke, which the girl said she purchased with Christmas money, and played ?He?s Got the Whole World in His Hands? with her because it only has two chords, making it easier for the young beginner.
In addition to getting to play music together, what members of NUTS also like about the group is it crosses political, generational and religious lines.
?Music is the common ground,? Weigelt said. ?Music is the language that we all (have) in common.?
?No age barriers for sure,? 63-year-old Barthell added.
Wilson, 71, who also plays piano, tenor banjo, bass guitar and mandolin, has another reason for enjoying the group.
?I like to play with this group because you?re not like a rock and roll band ? you don?t have to play the same three chords and don?t have to play the same 35 songs to appease a dance crowd.?
In the ?60s, Wilson played bass guitar and had to play whatever was popular with that band ? they played a set.
?So, I got with this group, and I never know what we?re going to play,? he said.
Barrera, who also plays the saxophone and acoustic guitar, has his own reasons for liking the group.
?For me, music has always been a strict discipline/art,? he said. ?This is the first group where there?s no discipline at all.?
In addition, he likes being around people of other generations, and the music he?s listened to has expanded.
One of the youngest members, Lee, is already there with the music, and that?s what he likes about the group.
?We actually play music that I listen to,? he said, which is from the 1960s and 1970s.
Lee also plays a variety of instruments ? anything that?s not a wind instrument, he said.
?I can?t handle the spit,? Lee said.
?Everybody?s gotta have boundaries,? Weigelt added.
When performing, Weigelt plays lead if they don?t have a vocalist, or she or Nicodemus sing. The other instrument Weigelt plays is the kazoo; she?s a certified kazoo player.
NUTS has performed in a variety of places, such as at a wedding reception, for the Kiwanis Club, Kauffman Museum and at Comfort Care Home. One Wednesday per month, they present a show at the Home, where snacks are served. They play covers, as no one has written any original tunes for the group. However, this is not out of the question, as Lee is a songwriter.
But before any of this happened, Weigelt and Barrera made a ukulele connection at Peace Connec?tions in Newton, where they both worked, and Nicodemus loaned a uke to Barrera.
?Ukulele is a kind of musical virus,? Weigelt said, laughing. ?And I?ve caught it, and I?m a carrier.?