Wine Country Ukulele Festival: Oct. 11, 2008 (St. Helena, California)

‘Want to skip straight to the gallery of photos of this event? Then click the link here. Otherwise, buckle your seatbelt and hang on for the full description of the festival:

The wind was a bit cool, but the enthusiasm and smiles of the organizers, teachers, performers and participants at the first-ever Wine Country Ukulele Festival definitely made this a warm and welcoming event.

Most of the festival’s activities were held on Saturday, but Friday did include some playing at a local veterans’ home and performing at the local Farmer’s Market (the Friday night dance was cancelled, with that evening’s performers added to Saturday evening’s concert line up). In this busy election season (an “industry” that accounts for a good part of our business), I was lucky just to make it to Saturday’s events; I had to skip the concert that night in order to get back to the office…but at least I got to go!

Cynthia, from Ukuleles of Paradise, joined me for the fun; she’s traveled with me to the Northern California Ukulele Festival with me a couple of times. I guess my unbridled enthusiasm for ukulele experiences hasn’t scared her off yet—she actually seemed happy to accompany me!

With the fun starting around 9 on Saturday morning (and Paradise about 3-1/2 hours away), we decided to cut Saturday’s drive time and spend the night in Fairfield, about 40 minutes from the festival (lodging in Napa Valley was really pricey!). Our online reservations for the Comfort Inn were assured, so we took our time driving south through the upper Sacramento Valley. The autumn sun slid into the western hills in a rich pumpkin palette of colors as we pulled off I-80 in Vacaville. Most folks know Vacaville as simply a place abounding with outlet stores midway between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe—but, if you enjoy Hawaiian food made with care and served with love, you should know Vacaville for Keanu’s Island Kine Food, a restaurant in a tiny strip mall just off Allison and Elmira Roads.

Kauai native DeeDee runs Keanu’s, with help from her three lovely daughters. The walls are hand-painted with a variety of Hawaiian motifs and a TV screen perched high in one corner of the room continuously plays videos of island scenes. The menu board is rich with a variety of Hawaiian foods—including homemade laulau. Plate lunch specials abound—and, of course I had to order my perennial favorite, Loco Moco. Cynthia tried the Kalua Pig/Teriyaki Chicken combo. Both plates came with the requisite two scoops of rice and macaroni salad. We each sampled from the other’s plate. Our conclusion? The food was oh, so ono!

But Keanu’s isn’t just about the homemade Hawaiian food—DeeDee and her crew welcome you to their restaurant with such a warm feeling of aloha that you instantly feel like your part of their ohana (family). When Cynthia and I opened the front door, Hawaiian singing and strumming poured out and we smiled at each other—we knew we were in the right place! Family and friends drop by Keanu’s on Friday evenings to mark pau hana—on the night we were there, I spotted ukuleles and a guitar and a bass, all played with true aloha. Keikis danced around happily to the upbeat melodies and diners smiled as they enjoyed the kani ka pila with their Hawaiian dinner delights. DeeDee and one daughter even danced the story of “Kalapana,” their graceful hands telling the tale of this lava-buried town on the south end of the Island of Hawaii.

Was it any wonder that Cynthia and I stayed until after closing? The music looked as if it would continue, but we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us and a full day on Saturday so we hugged DeeDee and smiled our thanks to all of our “new” friends gathered there. Keanu’s will definitely be on my itinerary when I pass through Vacaville again!

Saturday morning found us driving up Napa Valley, past Napa and into the lovely community of St. Helena. Nimbus Arts was the sponsor for the festival, staging Saturday’s events at the Upper Valley Campus of Napa College. Parking was easy and close-in—we knew we’d followed the driving directions correctly when we saw folks streaming onto the college grounds carrying ukulele cases and wearing a rainbow of Hawaiian shirts.

Elaine de Man, who was one of the main organizers for the event, had a cadre of helpful volunteers on hand. Their behind-the-scenes work before the festival was evident in the ease of registration and the organized feel of the whole event. Vendor booths were already in place, the day’s stage was ready for musicians and workshop leaders had plenty of chairs and room for their students—and all of this was finished before Hawaiian cultural educator Liko Puha opened the day with a chant.

I took workshops in beginning auana hula (from Liko), song arranging (Herb Ohta, Jr.) and ukulele fun (Mark Kailana Nelson). The wealth of workshops made me wish I could be in at least three places at once. Just imagine being able to choose from trying slide steel guitar (KonaBob), swing ukulele (James Hill), tips for beginners (Keoki Kahumoku), strum-cersizes (Ralph Shaw), stretching your chord repertoire (Robin Kneubuhi and learning to listen/buy an ukulele (Mike DaSilva). And that’s not even a complete list!

Folks traveled from all over to attend this festival. I’m on several ukulele and Hawaiian forums and it was fun to see so many of my friends from those boards:  Tom B. (thanks for the plum medley jelly!), Peter, Carl, PearlCityBoy, ToeBone, Old Smelly Bob (with his very clever ukulele made from a monkeypod salad bowl—don’t ask to pet the monkey on the headstock, though), John G., KonaBob, Shirley, MusicGuyMic, TikiKing and many others (ooh, it’s always bad when my brain cells desert me in the memory department; if I’ve not listed you, it’s not because I didn’t enjoy seeing you, I just can’t remember—blame it on my age and drop me a note, please!).

Participants had a range of ukuleles to spend their money on—from imports to custom instruments so beautiful that I could only imagine the amount of work and expertise involved in crafting them. Dave Sigman (Little River Ukuleles) had a handful of his lovingly hand-crafted instruments available and Chuck Moore (Moore Bettah ukuleles) brought some beautiful examples of his work (the “Mermaid” with the spalted koa with cocobolo was unbelievable). Mike DaSilva (DaSilva Ukulele Company) showed me the just-finished tenor he’d made for James Hill—it has the accessibility of a cutaway design to those “way up the neck” frets, but the cutaway is atypically shaped as a wedge rather than a full cutaway. The sound was incredible and seeing James’ face as he played it for the first time was a joy.

I enjoyed meeting Mike Upton of Kala Ukuleles. What a great product he provides for us ukulele players—a wide variety of well-made instruments from more-than-affordable all the way through to sopranos, concerts, tenors and baritones that you could be happy playing for the rest of your ukulele days. But the variety is so wide (and the prices are so reasonable) that you’ll probably want to get more than one eventually! I’ve been thinking of a custom tenor for a year or so (no, I’m not an impulsive buyer, am I?), but, since it’s quite a jump in size from my much-loved LoPrinzi soprano, I looked at the Kala instruments with the thought of buying a less-expensive tenor to “try” the size and make sure I like it before making the order for the custom instrument. Does that make sense to you players out there? Before seeing—and playing—the variety of Kala instruments, I’d ruled out the idea of a less costly instrument, figuring it wouldn’t be a good test of a tenor if it didn’t play or sound good—but the Kalas played quite nice and had a good sound.

I took a break from ukulele ogling to take my hula class. Liko Puha, who is from Hilo but recently moved to the Santa Rosa area, teaches oli, olelo Hawai’i and culture and history; I certainly wish I lived closer so I could learn from his broad-based knowledge. Liko teaches with authority yet the joy he has for his subject suffuses all that he shares. Liko offered his full heart to those of us in the hula class, even though it was just a beginning class and admittedly just over one hour long. He’d written a place name mele in honor of the festival in Napa and he took pains to explain to us the meaning and pronunciation of the Hawaiian words. This was definitely *not* a “for show only” hula class. I think I shared the sentiments of everyone in the class in feeling we’d been given a very special gift of Liko’s time and sharing.

Slipping outside after the class, I snapped several photos of *the* Dominator playing a wonderfully rich set of ukulele-only songs. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that Joanne was videotaping the performance and I’m pretty certain my backside is now preserved for perpetuity as I was angling for a better camera angle right in front of her videotaping. ‘Sorry, Joanne!

There wasn’t a huge variety of food available at the festival, but what there was was delicious. Smoothies, shave ice (I can’t imagine the tongue color of those folks who chose the “Blue Hawaiian” combo) and grilled meats, veggies and fruit tempted me. The fragrance of island-grown plumeria and tuberose and the colorful blossoms of orchids were worn by many festival participants who’d stepped into the Hawaiian craft room (free with paid admission) and made their own lei and hair ornaments. I didn’t have time to make a lei, but they did let me purloin a few blossoms so I could carry the perfume with me the rest of the day. Ahhh…

All too soon the day was done and Cynthia and I were headed back home to Paradise (not the island one!). I know the event meant lots of work for a passel of folks, but I sure hope they’re already planning for a Wine Country Ukulele Festival in 2009!