Natomas Seniors Strummin’ Along with Ukulele Band

Ukulele Heaven Orchestra band leader and founder Ken McCaulou performs at a recent California Retired Teachers Association gathering. / Photo: Jennifer K. Morita

Ukulele Heaven Orchestra band leader and founder Ken McCaulou performs at a recent California Retired Teachers Association gathering. / Photo: Jennifer K. Morita

BY JENNIFER K. MORITA
THE NATOMAS BUZZ | @natomasbuzz

An ukulele revival is bringing the four-string Hawaiian guitar’s mellow twang to Natomas.

The Ukulele Heaven Orchestra – a band of 20 musicians from Heritage Park – has been strumming for audiences at their community clubhouse and senior care homes throughout Sacramento since 2005.

“When you get to the point where you know you’re sounding pretty good, and you see the audience singing back to you, and you can see the smiles and enjoyment on their faces – that’s very rewarding,” band member Bob Schnetz said. “We love that.”

The orchestra grew out of a music club retired band leader, musician and composer Ken McCaulou started shortly after moving to Heritage Park. Heritage Park is a community for active adults over the age of 55 in north Natomas.

Band members run the gamut from retired professional musicians to beginners. The group performs about five times a year, including the upcoming Heritage Park Art Festival set for May 10.
A growing number of ukulele groups have been popping up throughout the Sacramento region in recent years.

The ukulele, which was introduced to the United States during the San Francisco World Expo in 1915, became popular in the 1920s in part because it was portable, inexpensive and easy to learn, said orchestra leader McCaulou.

“They only cost about $4. There wasn’t much radio back then, so if you wanted music in your home, you had to have a piano. Then the ukulele was introduced, and it really caught on,” McCaulou said. “…I worked with Mel Torme, and nobody knows it, but he played the ukulele. He practiced his songs with an ukulele because he travelled all the time and lived in hotel rooms.”

The ukulele made appearances in various musical genres from jazz to Tin Pan Alley tunes as well as early country music, until its popularity began to wane in the 1960s. Then in the 1990s, former Billboard Magazine publisher Jim Beloff bought an ukulele at a flea market and wrote a series of ukulele music books.

“When you get to the point where you know you’re sounding pretty good, and you see the audience singing back to you, and you can see the smiles and enjoyment on their faces – that’s very rewarding.”

-Bob Schnetz, Ukulele Heaven Orchestra

“All the books Jim Beloff wrote made it very easy to learn how to play the ukulele and how to read music,” McCaulou said. “He made the ukulele famous again.”

The last decade has seen an ukulele resurgence, fueled by the popularity of such hits as Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s mash up of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” and YouTube sensation Jake Shimabukuro.

“All the music store owners I’ve talked to say they sell more ukuleles than any other musical instrument,” McCaulou said.

So when McCaulou put up a notice in the Heritage Park clubhouse offering lessons to anyone who wanted to form an ukulele group, it wasn’t long before he had half a dozen residents signed up.

“Some of them knew music, some of them taught music in college, but had never played the ukulele. Then there were some that didn’t know any music,” McCaulou said. “So we started from the very beginning – learning how to play a C chord.”

Today, the Ukulele Heaven Orchestra boasts 20 members, including a cellist, vibraphonist, trumpet player and bass guitar player.

“…I wanted to start an ukulele group because it’s a very easy instrument to learn, and it’s very inexpensive,” McCaulou said. “If you don’t have one in the closet already, you can go to a music store and get one.”

A lifelong professional musician who played in the Jimmy Dorsey Band as well as led several groups of his own, McCaulou began playing the ukulele about 15 years ago.

“I owned a condominium that my mother-in-law lived in, and when she passed way I had to go in and empty it out,” said McCaulou, who also plays the saxophone, clarinet and flute. “There, I found an ukulele and a little book, so I started fooling around with it.”

Schnetz couldn’t read music when he first joined the Ukulele Heaven Orchestra. Like many people, Schnetz took piano lessons and briefly played the saxophone as a kid, but didn’t stick with either instrument for more than a couple of years, he said.

“I never played an instrument again, until I took up the ukulele,” said Schnetz. “…It’s not a hard instrument to play. I can’t read music, but we’re given chords and very simple illustrations of the chords, which show you where your fingers should be on the strings.

“…Now that I’ve been at it for seven years, it’s only when I’m dealing with a new chord that I get clumsy.

Over the years, the group has built a repertoire of big band songs, show tunes and popular songs from the 1920s through the 40s. They’ve even included a few country western songs and have dipped their toes into the 1960s with some Beatles music.

“But no rock,” Schnetz said.

The orchestra also rehearses faithfully once a week.

“It’s easy, and it’s fun because you get to sing everything while you’re playing,” McCaulou said. “Mostly, it’s the camaraderie. We enjoy our rehearsals – we go home laughing.

“It’s good therapy.”

McCaulou composed the orchestra’s theme song “Ukulele Heaven,” which begins with the very first notes the group learned – a basic C chord used to tune the instrument.

“I’m always glad, when I play the ukulele,” the musicians sing while strumming at community events, senior care homes and for groups such as the California Retired Teachers Association.

Judging from the toe-tapping and swaying, their audiences are too.

Other upcoming performances include the Gold Country Retirement Community in Placerville on April 22 and the Fremont Presbyterian Senior Social Club on June 11.


For more information about the Ukulele Heaven Orchestra, contact Bob Schnetz at (916) 419-9802.

"MJ Nealan" performs with the Ukulele Heaven Orchestra at a recent California Retired Teachers Association gathering. / Photo: Jennifer K. Morita

“MJ Nealan” performs with the Ukulele Heaven Orchestra at a recent California Retired Teachers Association gathering. / Photo: Jennifer K. Morita