ENCINITAS — Every Wednesday evening music and singing can be heard bellowing out of Today’s Pizza.
Inside the pizzeria, ukulele players are on stage, at tables and sitting at the bar strumming and singing.
The Moonlight Beach Strummers is an informal ukulele band. There are a handful of core musicians that lead the weekly jam sessions, and dozens of musicians who regularly sit in and play with the group.
The atmosphere is relaxed, and everyone is welcome.
Renowned musician Jeff Linsky occasionally joins the group on stage.
The ukulele band has been meeting for more than a decade. Music instructor Frank Leong, who passed away in 2013, came up with the idea of playing together at a public venue in order to give his ukulele students more practice.
The group first met at Kealani’s restaurant, and then moved to Today’s Pizza about 10 years ago.
After Leong passed away, band members Herb Pililaau and Jane Primicias stepped up to lead the band.
“We wanted to keep Frank’s legacy alive,” Primicias said. “People love it so much. It’s a good feeling every Wednesday. There’s a lot of aloha.”
Restaurant supervisor Payton Crouch said the weekly ukulele sessions are good for business.
“They definitely bring in business,” Crouch said. “They’re good people. They’re cool for an older group.”
The jam sessions are also a bit of a surprise to customers who have not been to Today’s Pizza on a Wednesday night.
“Some just stand there and don’t know what to think at first,” Crouch said. “Some love it.”
Musicians and friends arrive around 5 p.m. and have something to eat. Music starts at 6 p.m. and usually goes until 8 p.m.
Crouch said the crowd stays until 10 p.m. closing time.
During the jam sessions Pililaau calls out which song will be played, and everyone joins in regardless of experience.
To help keep musicians together on songs, band member Frank Primicias prepared an extensive song list on Google Drive. This allows musicians to bring their programmed laptops or readers, and have access to music, finger charts, and Hawaiian and English words to each song.
Every Wednesday there are two seats up front for musicians Luana Rebar and Vergie Thames, who regularly play with the group.
Thames said she has been around ukuleles since she was a child, but did not take up serious musicianship until she joined the Moonlight Beach Strummers.
“I was born and raised in Hawaii,” Thames said. “I didn’t start playing professionally until I was 40 years old, until the group started.”
Hula dancers with a range of experience also perform on stage. Oftentimes spontaneous hula dancing breaks out in the audience as well.
Musician Naida Malchiodi said there is no judgment, just joy.
“There needs to be a lot more of this going on in the world,” Malchiodi said.
The Moonlight Beach Strummers have developed a loyal following to the Wednesday night jam sessions. The band also performs at about six festivals a year. All band members, regardless of experience, are invited to participate in performances.