It's Monday evening at the Walrus, just after 8, and someone is singing "Margaritaville." 

Surprised diners turn around to see five women laughing and strumming ukuleles at a long table near the front of the restaurant.

"Some people claim that there's a woman to blame, but I know it's nobody's fault," they sang in harmony.

It's become a weekly tradition at the restaurant in the Bismarck Arrowhead Plaza, where the local women, mostly music teachers, jam on the instruments that look like mini guitars.

Nicole Cook, 44, a music instructor at Cathedral of the Holy Spirit Elementary School, started the club last year.

She'd recently begun teaching ukulele to her students, and it was so much fun that she thought her fellow singers in the Bismarck Mandan Civic Chorus might like it, too. 

"She came one night to chorus, and she said, 'I’ve been teaching my fifth-graders how to play ukulele. And I’ve got them all in my car from class, so why don’t we all go to the Walrus afterwards, anybody who wants to, and let’s see if we can learn to play and have some fun,'" said Alison Skogen, 63, who works in retail. "And that's how it evolved. It was a year ago March."

Cook said she called a couple bars: "They didn't want us." But she called on an old friend and neighbor, Jill Sanford, who owns the Walrus.

"Her and her husband, Paul, have been regulars for years," Sanford wrote in an email. "So Nicole one day out of the blue asked if she and her friends could play at the Walrus. Not a performance but just getting together for friendships, a glass of wine and playing their ukuleles. I said yes .... and so it goes."

"I said, 'I promise we'll just sit in the corner and behave!'" Cook recalled.

For the ladies, it's a time to chat about life and jobs and to enjoy making music. 

"The chorus is a little more formal. Black dresses and Beethoven, or something. This is, like, Willie Nelson and the Beach Boys," said Cook, who wore a small bowler hat and carried her ukulele on a flower-patterned strap.

Except for Cook, no one knew how to play ukulele before March. But it's way easier than the guitar, the women contend. And the nylon strings are less harsh on the fingers. 

Four of the women are local music teachers, so picking up a new instrument was pretty easy. 

"What's cool with the ukulele is the shape of the chords are the same as the guitar," said Debi Rogers, 64, who is a retired music and theater teacher and plays a Fender ukulele she retrofitted with a guitar string. 

Cook's the informal group leader and usually brings the new music. The song list Monday included "In the Jungle," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," "Brown Eyed Girl" and "Cabaret."

"I played through the whole thing on my way to the lake last week, and my husband's like, well, that's an interesting set!" Cook said. "There's something for everybody in there."

"Ukulele can be any genre, just played on the ukulele," said Maria Roll-Schlecht, 55, who is a music teacher at Roosevelt and Custer schools in Mandan.

Some of them already have invested in a few of the instruments, which come in concert and tenor versions. 

Roll-Schlecht played Monday night on a kona wood ukulele with engraved turtles, which she bought in Maui. It's pronounced oo-koo-lele in Hawaii, she reminds.

And if their ukulele chops fail, they know they can count on their voices. 

"Hey! At least we can sing," Cook joked after the group sang "Bad, Bad Leroy Brown" for the first time. 

Sometimes, diners drop by the table to join the singing, give a compliment or play along.

"Nice, everybody, nice," a woman with glasses smiled as she walked past the table after dinner Monday. "Good job, gals," an older man added.

Mostly, the women keep their performances to the informal jam sessions at the Walrus. But they're thinking it might be time to step outside.

In October, they played at the wedding of Stephanie Frank, a 32-year-old band teacher at Mandan Middle and High schools, who is also in the group.

On Thursday, they sang two songs at the open mic at Cafe Aroma.

"That's like our first gig," Cook said with a laugh.

To join or follow the whereabouts of Ukumondays, visit the group's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/groups/1573351889642105/

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at caroline.grueskin@bismarcktribune.com

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