Windy City Uke Fest: August 2008

Note: This is a lengthy account to give you an idea what it’s like to have attended this festival. If you want to skip the words and head directly to the 37 photos in the photo gallery album, 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.

Sweet sounds of the ukulele, wonderful workshop opportunities, island food and drinks (the kinds with the little umbrellas and wedges of pineapple perched on the edge) served in a tropical setting—and the friendliest group of ukulele people you could imagine. All of that defined my time at last week’s Windy City Uke Fest (WCUF), held in DesPlains, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.

While organizers Terry Pensel (Nui Ukkulele Club) and George Klinglehofer (Windy City Islanders) hadn’t staged a festival prior to this inaugural year for WCUF, you wouldn’t have guessed it from the final results of this ukulele festival in the heart of the Midwest. Top-name musicians and enthusiastic ukulele players showed up in force from all over the Midwest, Canada, Washington D.C, Hawaii and even Australia

My mom and dad are from a little, tiny (415 residents) dairy community in Wisconsin and, while they “escaped” before their 20th birthdays, most of my relatives are still scattered from Wisconsin to Illinois and Iowa; this means that the distinctive Midwest accent (yes, you folks do have an accent!) comforts me; in short, it feels like I’m with family—my Midwestern ohana, if you have it. And that friendly feel—and improving ukulele skills, listening to ukulele masters and plenty of opportunities for playing—was what the WCUF was all about.

I’ve been to a passel of ukulele festivals but never have encountered the friendliness right off the bat that there was at this one. Typically it takes folks a while to get comfortable with one another and be willing to let down their defenses to learn new techniques, try different strumming or attempt jamming with songs out of their usual repertoire. That definitely wasn’t the case at Windy City; jam sessions in the hotel (despite the surly late night clerk and the meeting room with an aroma, as Gerald Ross suggested, of a recent taxidermists’ gathering) and the workshop site featured the widest range of songs I’ve played lately.

And talk about hospitality: Anita, a student in my beginning class, invited a group of us to her home for a delicious lunch on Sunday (and an impromptu hula performance by her little-bit of a daughter); and Lopaka and Julie Young surreptitiously picked up the tab one morning for breakfast at the Silver Stallion (thank you, again!). Is this kind of warmth typical of Chicago-area folks??? Or is it that genuinely nice people are drawn to the ukulele? Hmmm…perhaps there’s a master’s thesis study in there somewhere for a sociology student…

The venue:

Who’d have guessed that, in the middle of the typical suburban Midwest strip mall, you’d find a tropical paradise, replete with hand-carved tiki, friendly servers attired in Polynesian pareo and Hawaiian foods that you’d think were right off a menu on the Big Island of Hawaii? But, I’m here to tell you, it’s there—and it’s called Tiki Terrace, miraculously located in the midst of Des Plaines.

The friendly folks at Tiki Terrace hosted the evening events throughout the Windy City Uke Fest. That means I got to enjoy everything from dinners of coconut crusted chicken, to kalbi ribs, kalua pork, special order loco moco and even taro chips with pineapple salsa. This also means I have a renewed commitment to visiting the gym more regularly now that I’m back home—but every delicious calorie will be worth the few minutes on the elliptical. Dozens of pineapples and lots of rum evidently gave their lives for the various drinks at the Tiki Terrace (I wasn’t driving so I sampled a variety); there was even a drink called the “Kamaka,” which, being a devoted ukulele player I had to try a sip of, too.

In addition to the great food, the Tiki Terrace’s sophisticated sound system and large stage provided an up-close experience from almost every seat in the restaurant. Imagine enjoying the awesome precision of Abe Lagrimas Jr.’s ukulele fingerpicking while sitting at a cozy table with friends, both new and old—and being so close that you can see each of Abe’s left fingers traverse the fretboard. ‘Talk about an intimate and sound-filled venue, the Tiki Terrace definitely fit the bill.

If you had a yearning to be videotaped playing ukulele and post it on YouTube, WCUF’s UkeTube Stage (at the Tiki Terrace) offered you that chance—with a professional sound system at your disposal and the tropical setting as a backdrop. I took a pass on the experience—but some day I do think I’ll work up something for YouTube…watch out world!

Workshops, vendor displays and other daytime activities were held across the parking lot from the Tiki Terrace, in a vacant commercial space. While the space did tend to get a bit noisy during workshops, it worked fine for its purpose, especially when Terry found a second location for workshops on Saturday…

The physical ambiance of the setting wasn’t really wowser but add in the ukulele “candy” from MusicGuyMic and Karl Markl as well as oodles of teaching materials from Curt Sheller and others and you have a toy store of delights for the ukulele afflicted. And no, despite the great instruments available (and Mike’s sincere help in finding me one), I still haven’t bought my “dream” tenor. Everyone needs a holy grail to pursue and I guess that’ll be mine…

The workshops:

The Windy City Uke Fest followed a format similar to that of the Portland Ukulele Festival: participants could sign up for all three days and most workshops would continue each of the three days. This is in contrast to the more typical “one session only” classes at most ukulele festivals. Workshops were timed so that beginning and advanced classes were held concurrently; intermediate classes were in the afternoon.

Instructors submitted workshop handouts prior to the festival and the organizers created a “workshop practice book” for every participant which had all the instruction materials. This allowed each participant to take home materials not only from the classes they actually attended, but also the handouts from the classes they didn’t go to—adding greatly to the learning possibilities in future months, when memories of the class are dimming.

Workshops included: “Introduction to Swing Ukulele” and a demo of swing lap steel guitar (Gerald Ross); “Introduction to Fingerpicking (Mark “Spanky” Gutierrez); “Intros, Solos and Endings” (Curt Sheller); “Moving from Beginner to Accomplished Ukulele Musician” (Seeso); “Hula: ‘Ulupalakua” (Joyce Flaugher); “Blues Ukulele Class” and “Intermediate Strumming” (Li’l Rev); “Advanced Ukulele” (Ali Lexa); “How to Effectively Learn the Ukulele,” “Recognizing Common Progressions” and “Best Methods for Teaching Ukulele (Kimo Hussey) and “You Can Play the Ukulele, Too” (taught by me!).

Additionally Terry offered mini-workshops on what to look for when buying an ukulele, ukulele resources on the web and the Kodaly Method of learning music. With such an intimate setting, instructors could often be seen between classes, working with individuals or small groups of students, offering even more information (thanks, Mark, for the tips on playing lead using the song’s pentatonic scale—I’m working on that scale “shape” and am almost ready for the next).

While I really enjoy teaching local folks how to play the ukulele (people in these parts know to duck out when they see me coming!), the Windy City Uke Fest was my first opportunity to teach “formally” outside of our area. What a joy it was to help new players gain the skills—and confidence—to play the ukulele! We had a few total “newbies” who’d not picked up an ukulele before and a host of others who had basic skills but wanted to stretch those a bit. It was easy teaching (and learning from) such an enthusiastic group—my goal was to give each class participant the joy, fun, camaraderie and a real sense of accomplishment that comes from learning to play the ukulele. In case you hadn’t guessed it, “fun” was the operative word…

The kani ka pila (aka “jamming”):

In his class, Kimo asked participants why they’d come to the festival. Answer choices included A) concerts, B) learning, and C) playing with others. The largest number of hands raised was for “learning” but then everyone laughed that they wanted to learn so they could play with others!

Playing with others/kani ka pila/jamming is a highlight for me of attending festivals—and I wasn’t disappointed at WCUF. On Thursday, a group played until midnight at the Tiki Terrace. For most of us ukulele players scattered around the country, a festival is the only time we’ll get to strum side by side with the likes of Kimo Hussey, Mark Gutierrez, Gerald Ross, Lopaka Young and and other “name” players. For some of us in ukulele-isolated regions, they’re the only chance to strum alongside others period! Keenan Kamae (yes, from that Kamae family) graced us during Thursday night’s jamming with a lively hula rendition of Ulupulakua as we all strummed and sang.

The playing continued throughout the weekend as spontaneous jam sessions popped up in the workshop area as well as the lobby and the meeting hall of the hotel. In the words of Lori, from Wisconsin, who’d never attended an ukulele festival before, “Playing and singing with so many ukulele friends was something that I never, ever dreamed of doing and, wow—there I was, right in the middle of it.”

And, yes, at least one group played “Tiptoe Through the Tulips”—but we played the “old” version of it with the lead-in verses, not just the Tiny-Tim-Made-It-(in)Famous chorus.

The concerts:

Ukulele performers played for three full nights of concerts (six half-hour sets a night). Take a look at the line-up and go ahead and be jealous: Kimo Hussey, Ali Lexa, Windy City Islanders, Seeso, Abe Lagrimas Jr., Gerald Ross, Tim Sweeney, Victoria Vox, Mark Gutierrez, Li’l Rev, Jonathan Carreira, Keenan Kamae, Lopaka Young, Curt Sheller, Dale Anderson, Barefoot Hawaiian and comedian Mark Griffo.

Whew! We even saw MusicGuyMic take to the stage (with Debi Velasco’s bass ukulele) to accompany one of Abe’s numbers; he was joined by Debi’s hubby, Gordon, on ukulele.

In summary:

The TSA guy at the airport on the West Coast snickered when he heard that I was heading to an ukulele festival in Chicago. Ha! What could he have known??? The Windy City Uke Fest was a joy to attend and a solid success as a first-time festival—if Terry and George are brave enough to take it on again in 2009, I’d call it a definite “you gotta do this” event.