Northern California Ukulele Festival—April 27, 2008 (and pre-festival fun, too)

Note: This is long; it’s written for those folks who wonder what it’s really like to attend an ukulele festival and like to know the details. If you just want the photos, go here.

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Pre-Festival:
Sunny weather, warm aloha and hot ukulele playing were on this weekend’s agenda as I traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area for the Northern California Ukulele Festival. Held in Hayward, this festival is the 15th annual for this group, making it the longest-running mainland ukulele event. While the day-long festival is on Sunday, there were some great pre-festival activities slated the day before the event so I headed out from Paradise early on Saturday morning. While I love my merlot special edition Miata (and the UKALADY license plates would have been especially appropriate for the weekend’s activities), it feels like an awfully tiny car to be slipping in and out of lanes on high-speed Bay Area freeways—so I toodled down in the ever-trusty 1986 Mazda 626; not a lot of style to the car but it got a whopping 41 miles per gallon—and at almost $4 gallon, that was more than appreciated. It’s about 3-1/2 hours to Berkeley, so I loaded up on a wealth of Hawaiian and ukulele CDs, aimed the steering wheel south and ventured out of the Sierra foothills and toward the Big City.

To get me in the mood for a Hawaiian weekend (as if Bryan Tolentino’s “Ka Ukulele Lele” hadn’t done it), I stopped by an L&L Hawaiian Barbecue in Vacaville for an early lunch. Freeway-close and predictably tasty loco moco made it a good choice. Plus, they subscribe to the “Honolulu Advertiser” and, as I enjoyed the brown gravy, rice, hamburger patty, egg and mac salad, I caught up on a bit of island news (albeit one week old).

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Next stop on my whirlwind Hawaiian weekend was at Mike Dasilva’s ukulele shop/venue in Berkeley. Mike staged an open house throughout Saturday afternoon with refreshments, informal tours of the shop, instruments to try and an open mic stage. I met a delightful woman from a small ukulele club over in Sausalito, enjoyed talking with Genaro (he, Sil and Evan played some great Hawaiian tunes on the small stage) and saw first-hand some wonderful ukuleles in progress.

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Mike has brought in a slew of ukulele cases which are different from any I’ve seen; they’re fiberglass-based, but are that “formed” shape like you see on Bolle sunglass cases. They appear really sturdy and yet aren’t overly heavy. He has them for all sizes.

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Leaving Mike’s shop I continued south on 880, checking in at the Fremont LaQuinta ($59/night!) to leave my roll-along in the room by itself while I grabbed my ukulele and happily anticipated the upcoming party at John G. and Katie’s delightful home in Campbell. Every year these two host a pre-festival barbecue. Not only are they wonderful hosts, but the afternoon and evening features good-natured bocce ball games, the most awesome barbecue beans I’ve ever enjoyed, wonderful libations, plates of thinly-sliced grilled tri-tip and, best of all, kanikapila well into the night.

As a “lifetime” invitee to this event, I consider myself a lucky gal. Jeff Turner and his wife, Deena, traveled up from Woodland Hills (we missed super ukulele collector Roger, who chose a bad time to pick up a flu bug); Curtis and his wife, Elizabeth, were there, as, usual (with Kendra, Curtis’ talented ukulele student); Toebone and his wife, Tracey, dropped in as did Dominator and wife, Joanne. Dom was anticipating his solo performance coming up on Sunday morning at the festival and admitted to being a bit nervous. We played and sang (some better than others; well, really, everyone better than me, but I just consider that I make the others feel really good about their musical abilities in comparison) until well after 10 pm. Since some of the attendees had early-morning volunteer roles at the next day’s festival, it wasn’t a really late night.

Festival:
Sunday morning’s sunny skies promised plenty of warm weather for that day’s festival in Hayward. I was in the parking lot by 9:45 (meaning I got a parking space!) and I paid my $5 (what a deal!) and lined up with the others waiting to enter the auditorium. The doors weren’t scheduled to open until 10:30 but I knew Dominator was second on the schedule and I wanted to scout out a good seat. Joanne was in line beside me and, when the doors finally opened, we found ourselves front row seats on the aisle. As an aside, Joanne is one of those “really prepared” people; ‘need a tissue? She’ll pull one out of her purse. Aspirin? Same thing. We’d both had an overload of ink from the entrance stamp on our wrists and Joanne’s had smeared onto her jeans. She had a packet of Shout! out in no time to remove the stain. Wow. I think Joanne must have a Boy Scout background.

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The festival’s program features a variety of ukulele-playing individuals and groups; each applies to be on the program and then agrees to play a 10-minute set; this allows for a huge number and variety of performers throughout the day. The auditorium is lushly decorated with greenery, flowers, kahili and Hawaiian quilts and the audience is typically appreciative to each act—whether it’s a large group of enthusiastic youngsters, a mellow trio, a group of aunties and uncles with nahenahe tunes or an ukulele soloist. Dominator was second up that morning and walked on with aplomb—and no hint of any nervousness. His playing of his first selection,  ”Blue Roses Falling,” was a joy. Audience members seemed to be leaning forward to catch every nuance on the fretboard. He played “Something” for his second selection and, for his third, he performed “Star-Spangled Banner,” dedicating the song to those who are serving our country at this time.

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After listening to Dominator, I headed out to the courtyard where the vendor booths and informal jamming takes place. My first stop was Kamaka Ukulele, where I was warmly greeted by Asa Young (‘such a talented player and singer and yet so modest). I spoke with Chris Kamaka for a bit about perhaps building a tenor with satin finish and a dark binding (hmm….) and then wandered by the booths. I spoke with Tiki King (I really like the new Bark Cloth Flea he designed for FMM), the gal from Hawaiian Airlines (their credit card earns us “free” mileage since we pay it off in full every month) and Tony Graziano. Over on the “other” side of the courtyard I stopped in at Hawaiian Eye Designs (I love their shirts and stickers) where I was surprised to see BruddahMark (does that guy travel all over or what?); he said he’d just flown up for the day since he had never been to the Hayward festival.

At the KP Ukulele booth, John was showing off a variety of Ken’s instruments; two new concerts, including a cutaway, were available. John shared space with Aldon Sanders, who was playing songs from his new CD, “The Uke Files.” The CD includes original songs, some Hawaiian tunes and even a few Mexican melodies; I’ve met Aldon before at John’s party and I knew his playing and singing is wonderful, so of course I had to buy it. You should, too.

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On the way back from foraging for lunch (chili plate with mac salad and rice), I spotted Little River Ukuleles‘ booth. Luthier Dave Sigman displayed some absolutely delectable ukuleles—most of them tenors. His inlay work, I’d heard earlier, is impeccable and, I can tell you from first-hand experience, that’s no exaggeration. But these are not just good-lookin’ ukuleles, Dave’s instruments sound superb. The action is just how I like it and the neck and construction made even my soprano-primed fingers feel at home on the fretboard. I went back three times to play a koa tenor with a lovely hula girl on the headstock and an even lovelier sound. I know one is never supposed to have regrets, but that instrument is the closest I’ve come to sharing my heart with another ukulele. Unfortunately, I dallied and it went home with someone else. Passing through the courtyard again, Tom B spotted me and, after catching up on a bit of news, I took him over to the Little River Ukuleles booth to introduce him to Dave. Tom B typically only buys vintage ukuleles, but he fell in love with a walnut tenor (made from wood from nearby Chico) inlaid with the sweetest barn swallow in flight—and, after much thought, he bought it; I felt a bit like an ukulele matchmaker, helping along what will surely be a great relationship.

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But the day wasn’t over—there were still great performances on stage to enjoy as well as friends to jam with in the courtyard. The Marin ukulele group (Ukulele Friends Ohana) was at the “usual” spot in the shade at the far end of the courtyard and they welcomed any who wanted to join them in kanikapila—even me! BruddaBu and Dave from Petaluma were among the welcoming strummers in the shade. And, they even played kazoos at the same time they strummed ukuleles!

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My total purchases for the day? A tuberose lei (and it still smells good—’though it looks a bit worn out), two bottles of water, Aldon’s CD and the chili plate lunch. Not much damage to the credit card this year at Hayward—but I’m still thinking of a new tenor!