Portland Uke Fest: June 2008

Note: This is a lengthy account to give you an idea what it’s like to attend a three-day festival. If you want to skip the words and head directly to the photo gallery, click here.  If you want to see the captions for each pix, click “detail” in the bottom right corner of the album’s page; also, enlarge the thumbnails by double clicking on them.

Portland Uke Fest 2008

My “barre chording” thumb is sore, I’m still catching up on sleep and I have so many new ukulele concepts to practice that my fingers won’t get any rest for at least eight months. But would I have missed the Portland Uke Fest held last week at Reed College? Nope, not for all the Aquila Nylguts in the world.

While I’ve been to more than a dozen ukulele festivals in the past four years, I’d never taken the plane north to Oregon to attend what’s known as the “favorite” festival by many ukulele workshop teachers, performers and students. This year I made reservations in early spring (they have limited space—sign up by late April if you want to be assured of a slot), snagged a couple Southwest flights and got myself prepped for three-plus solid days of ukulele learning, listening, playing and schmoozing. Sigh…I should have gotten more sleep ahead of time.

While many of the event’s “students” live near the Portland area and are “day trippers” for the event, most of the participants took lodging in spiffy dorm rooms on the Reed College campus where the festival was held. I was assigned a “single” room (perhaps, once again, my reputation has preceded me) on the all-woman second floor in Foster. A brilliant tangerine orange wall complemented the turquoise door to the hall. Alert: The door locks behind you so you’d better have your key with you all the time—I discovered my after-shower pareo doesn’t come equipped with a pocket. (You can imagine my joy waiting for a security guy whilst dressed in nothing more than a rectangle of Hawaiian-print fabric, sporting damp hair and freshly-brushed teeth when I locked myself out one morning.) A small desk, tall dresser and closet finished off the dorm room’s decor. I finished unpacking, spread out my pareo on the bed for a bit of wild color, put my iPod on the charger and headed across the campus to the Student Union.

People milled around inside the building, renewing friendships, checking out the dozens of CDs, books and DVDs and comparing notes on what had happened to them during the past year. This festival is set up as a “camp” experience and, being a first-year attendee, I have to admit I felt a bit left out of the camp “family” that first evening, despite knowing more than a handful of people. Many came from Canada—even heading in from Nova Scotia. Lots of Washington and California folks—and even Shigato was there from Japan (what an awesome player—and now he dances hula, too!).

Instructors at this festival are alloted a few minutes on the night before the first workshops to explain what they’ll be teaching—and in many cases, their approach to teaching. This helps you choose the right workshop for your needs and abilities. The festival is structured so students take three classes which are held at the same time slot for all three days of the event; this allows teachers to really develop their concepts, students to develop their skills and all of us to develop friendships. (The upcoming Windy City Uke Fest will be using the same format—check it out for a similar type of learning experience).

With so many stellar instructors it was more than difficult to choose my classes but I finally settled on Gerald Ross’ “Introduction to Swing” class, James Hill’s “How to Teach Ukulele” workshop and Mark Gutierrez (aka Marko or Spanky) for a fingerpicking class. My afternoon “extra” workshop was “Beginning Hula” all three days with Francis Doo. Sure, I could have napped during the afternoon slot instead of trying hula, but how much fun would that have been?

Every class was excellent. Handouts were plentiful and informative. Each teacher I had was well-prepared, enthusiastic and bursting with solid ukulele skills he was eager to share. Talk about motivational and inspiring! If I’m not a better player thanks to their teaching, I’ll be embarrassed to return next year.

Each evening featured entertainment. Thursday’s was an open mic that wasn’t like any open mic I’ve ever experienced; these people were really, really good. Funny, skilled, commanding stage presence and unique (although it was the *second* ukulele/tap dancing set I’ve seen—just imagine!). Friday and Saturday were more formal concerts in the 409-seat auditorium (which was filled to capacity).

If you have a decent-sized collection of ukulele CDs, you can just glance over to it now and I’ll bet you’ll find most of those artists on the list of presenters of workshops and performances at this festival. Okay, I’ll drop a few names: James Hill, Ralph Shaw, Lyle Ritz, John King, Gerald Ross, Del Rey, Li’l Rev, Joel Eckhaus, Jim Beloff, Kimo Hussey, Brook Adams, Mark Gutierrez. Oh, and don’t forget Jere and Greg Canote, Piper Heisig and Casey McGill. Just wandering around for three days and listening to these folks play was a treat. And, they all willingly converse with us “nobodies,” too. Talk about ukulele democracy—wow!

Jamming until well after 1 a.m. finished off every evening (the open bar really helped loosen any inhibitions; a bump and a splash of red wine on a favorite ukulele sweatshirt left me sticking with white wines on the remaining nights). At one point I looked around and there was a banjo, a stand-up bass, Gerald’s slide guitar and a coronet making music with the slew of ukuleles the rest of us cradled in our arms.

A highlight for me was attempting “my first solo in front of other people” during an open mic in Mark’s class; I bombed it pretty badly, but I finished the song (finally—after three tries). Fortunately the day ended on a high note as the students in our temporary hula halau did a more-than-passable job at dancing at Saturday night’s concert. I found the dance a joy—mainly because we’d learned the meaning of all the Hawaiian words and it was like telling a story and sharing it with the audience. That doesn’t mean, of course, that my movements were in sync with everyone else’s, but no one seemed to notice as we all shared the tale of “E Ho’i I Ka Pili.”

At the Portland Uke Fest I made new friends (including a real dentist!), got to know old friends even better and learned so much about ukulele as well as about myself. I’m determined to do better next time in an open mic-type situation. And I will try hula again.

My advice? If you’re looking for the ultimate “ukulele intensive” experience, don’t miss the Portland Uke Fest. But be sure and get in enough naps ahead of time—you’ll need the extra sleep!