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Plucky Guy: Mike Marshall comes to the World Mandolin Extravaganza with a handful of his closest mandolin-picking friends.

Mondo Mando

The mandolin comes out of the bluegrass closet at this week's Mandolin Symposium.

By Andrew Gilbert

For decades the mandolin was a marginalized instrument in the United States, consigned mostly to bluegrass and various folk styles. Less than a century ago, however, the mighty mando reigned supreme in American music. Skilled soloists and well-rehearsed "plectrum" orchestras made up of mandolins, mandocellos, mandolas and mandobasses provided much of the nation's communal instrumental entertainment in the years before the advent of radio and electronic recording. Highly portable, relatively easy to learn and tuned like a violin (thus suitable for folk, pop and classical music), the mandolin peaked in popularity just before the dawn of the Jazz Age.

While several visionaries championed the plucky eight-string instrument after it was supplanted by the banjo and guitar (most importantly bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe), it's only recently that the mandolin has attracted a growing new generation of players. Ground zero of the mandolin revival can be found next week on UC-Santa Cruz's sylvan campus, where many of the instrument's finest practitioners gather to study, teach, jam and perform at the Mandolin Symposium.

Launched in 2004 by tireless bluegrass activist Stephen Ruffo and the multigenerational triumvirate of mando masters David Grisman, Mike Marshall and Nickel Creek's Chris Thile, the Symposium is a six-day event that includes seminars, demonstrations and performances by a stellar faculty and about 160 students, some of whom are blazing new trails on the instrument.

"I look at it as a renaissance," says Grisman, 63, who's best known for his stylistically encompassing "dawg music" quintet and collaborations with legendary jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli and the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia (which was captured in the 2000 documentary Grateful Dawg). "There seems to be as great an interest now as ever, and it doesn't show any signs of letting up. I always thought the mandolin was a great instrument, but underdeveloped by players. Until musicians exploit the possibilities of it, it's fairly useless."

The musicians charting the mandolin's future start registering at Kresge College on Monday, June 23, and while the Symposium is mostly closed to the public, the event concludes on the evening of Saturday, June 28, with an open concert at UCSC's Music Center Recital Hall. Don Quixote's also offers a preview of the week with an evening featuring a dazzling, international cross-section of the Symposium's faculty on Saturday, June 21. From Brazil, there's Danilo Brito, who gained fame as a 19-year-old phenomenon in 2004 when he won the seventh annual Premio Visa de Musica Brasileira award in 2004 for the best instrumentalist (on any instrument). Bulgarian-born Caterina Lichtenberg is a master of European classical music, and Brazil's Dudu Maia is a virtuoso on the bandolim (that's Portuguese for mandolin). The Brazilian theme continues with headliner Mike Marshall, who performs with his band Choro Famoso, a group dedicated to the intricate Brazilian instrumental style often compared to bluegrass. The quintet features Brazilian-born, Oakland-based guitarist Carlos Oliveira ("If you're gonna play Brazilian music you've gotta have somebody supplying the essence of that feel, and Carlos is a groove master," Marshall says), reed master Andy Connell on clarinet and soprano sax and percussionists Michael Spiro and Brian Rice, who specializes in the tambourine-like pandeiro, an essential component of any choro band. Many of the Symposium attendants are adult, long-time fans of Marshall, Grisman and Andy Statman, another illustrious faculty member. But the Symposium also attracts a generous helping of blazing young teenage players whom Marshall describes as "the future of the instrument."

"If you're doing the right thing as a student, you learn everything that your teacher recorded by the time you're 15 and then you push the envelope," says Marshall, a string wizard who is also an accomplished fiddler and guitarist. "It's hard to imagine that it can go further than Chris Thile, but sure enough it does. Youth is the answer, with that incredible dexterity, and a mind that's an open sponge without a mortgage and private school tuition to worry about."

THE WORLD MANDOLIN EXTRAVAGANZA is Saturday, June 28, at 8pm at Don Quixote's, 6275 Hwy. 9, Felton. $16/$18; 831.603.2294.

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