Lots of Pluck

Appears in the August 2023 issue.

The Aurora Uke Fest shines a big spotlight on a pint-size instrument

Uke band

Todd VonOhlen will readily admit that the best he can probably do on a ukulele is pluck out a few holiday carols—and not very well. But even those fleeting half-tunes tend to inspire grins—for both himself as a player and whomever happens to be in the room—which is why he’s such a staunch proponent of uke music, and why as chairman of the City of Lights Ukulele Society he’s so excited about the return of the annual Aurora Uke Festival on August 19. “Ukuleles make people smile,” he says. “Sharing the happiness that the tiny ukulele can bring to performers and listeners alike has been a true joy.”

A man performing with a ukelele under a gazebo

A semiretired AV designer, VonOhlen first got involved with the Uke Fest (originally known as the City of Lights Ukulele Festival) at the urging of Aurora alderman Mike Saville, who reached out to him in 2018 for help finding talent for a ukulele festival he was looking to organize. VonOhlen put the word out to a handful of players he knew, including the late Juel Ulven, longtime head of the Fox Valley Folk Music and Storytelling Festival, and music store owners Carl and Andrew Hix, founders of the Hix Bros Ukulele Band, who came on board as early members of the City of Lights Ukulele Society and performers on the bill for the first festival.

Marking its sixth year, the festival in downtown Aurora now features longer hours and an expanded lineup—including Joliet-born Todd Lorenc, uke scene mainstay Lil’ Rev, the energetic Aaron Baer, husband-and-wife duo the Fabulous Heftones, and Uke Fest OGs the Hix Bros Ukulele Band—that he believes reflect the continued growth of the humble instrument at its center. “The ukulele has seen a surge in popularity around the world, in part due to popular musicians using it in their compositions,” says VonOhlen, citing high-profile artists who are carrying on the instrument’s tradition, including Taylor Swift and Eddie Vedder. “It’s easy to play, portable, and affordable.”

A band featuring a ukelele player

But for as much as the festival puts the ukulele center stage, VonOhlen is equally proud of how it’s helped promote community over the course of its brief history, something he hopes will continue to unfold for years to come. “Bringing Aurora’s diverse population together at events like this helps us enjoy commonality and appreciate each other’s uniqueness,” he says. “Discovering some amazingly talented performers and giving them an audience has been great fun, and we hope this little festival can continue to entice young students to explore the joy of playing and listening to music.”

For more information, visit auroraukefest.com.


Photos: Kurt VonOhlen (festival); iStock (ukulele)