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They've Got Pluck: What's the difference between a ukulele and a trampoline? You take off your shoes when you jump up and down on a trampoline. In other news, all of these UkeFestWest performers know better uke jokes that that one.

Ukes Run Wild

Ukulele ladies and gents defend their musical weapon of choice as they descend on Santa Cruz's UkeWestFest

By Mike Connor

"I uke, therefore I am." --Cool Hand Uke

Its name means "jumping flea"--some say that's how the native Hawaiians described the Portuguese immigrants who brought the diminutive four-stringed guitar to Honolulu back in 1879. Others say it was named for a lively court jester who jumped around as he played the instrument.

But one thing's for sure: a Lilliputian movement of gargantuan proportions is gathering momentum around the world, and one of its epicenters is right here in Santa Cruz. This is no mere hyperbole--just look at the numbers: 156, 35, 112, 28, 300-500.

To review: The last Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz meeting--a monthly affair happening every third Thursday at Bocci's Cellar--drew 156 players, making it one of the largest ukulele clubs in existence. Now, thanks in part to the club's regulars, 35 performers from all over the world will convene at the Cocoanut Grove this weekend for the UkeFestWest concert, sometimes referred to by its organizers as "Ukestock" for the sheer magnitude and singular nature of the event--three days of performances, workshops and jam sessions. Already there are 112 rooms booked at the West Coast Santa Cruz Hotel, with occupants coming from 28 different countries to attend the event. Plus, the "Ukes for Kids" aspect of the event will put 300-500 ukuleles in the hands of area kids.

"In ukulele, nothing is huge," says UkeFest organizer Andy Andrews, who first organized Santa Cruz's Ukulele Club 2 1/2 years ago with Peter Thomas. "But for ukulele, this is huge."

First Rule: There Are No Rules

At this point you may be asking yourself, "Hey Oliver, what is it about Santa Cruz and the ukulele?"

Funny, because we wondered the exact same thing. So we just went ahead and asked him.

"There are many reasons," says local uke player Brown, a.k.a. Sir Ukulele Extraordinaire. "It's charming. It's tiny and portable and it's easy to learn. And there aren't any rules about how to play it. With ukulele, maybe there's never been a precedent on how it should be played, so what you'll see is dozens and dozens of people playing their own style, their complete personality coming out in how they play. You're gonna get fingerpickers, comedians, ballads--they'll all be playing different styles, but they'll all be anchored by the ukulele."

"It's just a very accessible instrument," says Andrews. "And when you take it out to play it, most people's expectations are very low, so if it sounds even vaguely good, people begin to smile. And there's no better combination than smiling and music."

We'd like to throw "smiling and nookie" into the ring, but still, he's got a point. For sheer smile factor, the uke is only rivaled by the washboard, the saw and possibly the accordion. But it's hard to project a whole lot of personality through a washboard. As for saws, they've got their own little festival up in Ben Lomond every year. The accordion is charming and all--Oliver points out that, like the ukulele, it has the ability to channel personalities. But accordions have some problems.

"The accordion is very complicated to play," says Oliver, "it's very heavy--you can't just bring it along. The uke is very, very easy to play, it weighs about a pound. And yet all these big, complicated, extraordinary personalities have this anchor of this little ukulele."

So why are they all coming to Santa Cruz? Well, because a ton of them are already here, so instead of bringing the mountain to the straggling uke players, Andrews is bringing the ukers here.

"That's what Santa Cruz is all about: amazing, quirky, wonderful things," says Andrews. "It just feels like ukes and Santa Cruz are a match made in heaven--both of them are thought of by the rest of the world as ... just a little strange."

And with that, Metro Santa Cruz presents the authoritatively unofficial index of Uke Fest Westerners answering the question: Why the ukulele?

Oliver Brown: "For me, the answer is it's already inside you when you're born. And it might take 20 years to realize that you have the ukulele code inside you, but it's there. I've tried playing guitar, I've tried playing piano, I've always known that I needed to play--but it's always the ukulele. And what about all those people before the ukulele existed? They had to be court jesters, they had to write plays, they were actors ... they were doing things, but probably had a void inside them because they didn't have the uke to play."

Ka Ehu Kai:

A Uke-ku:
A Single Movement,
Strings Vibrate in Harmony,
My Uke Sings to me.

Janet Klein: "It's the most lovable instrument I can think of ... besides the triangle, kazoo or harmonica. Qualities such as simplicity, sincerity, sweetness, charm, sparkle or spunkiness are not easy to find in music these days, but you can find a treasure trove of such things among ukulele players. I like to think small ... that's why I'd rather write a nicely honed poem than attempt a novel. I'd rather play a little naughty ditty successfully on the ukulele than ruin a concerto on a grand piano. You gotta do what suits your personality."

Carmaig: "Cheap, portable and unintimidating--that's what drew me to it. I got serious about songwriting and the uke was what I could play. Now we're stuck with each other."

Joel Eckhaus, a.k.a. Ukulele Eck: "I've always been attracted to unusual instruments. The bass clarinet was the first thing I tried to play in grade school. After literally having to drag that case to school, I figured out that maybe smaller and lighter was better. I am also particularly bad at telling jokes, but I learned from a guitar-playing camp counselor that you could make people laugh by singing funny songs. And then I heard Ukulele Ike use the ukulele as the perfect accompaniment to novelty songs."

Dan 'Cool Hand Uke' Scanlan: "As a political activist, I find the ukulele is a useful tool because it is charming and disarming, It's hard to be mad at someone who's playing a uke. As a singer and songwriter, the ukulele is far more accessible than a guitar. As a human being, the ukulele carries within it the melding of at least two multicultural societies--the melting pots of Madeira Island and the Hawaiian Islands. The blending of cultures is perhaps the most important thing the planet needs today."

James Hill: "For me, the uke was always fun (and still is). I've dabbled in other instruments but none give me the same thrill. So much of the ukulele's potential is as yet 'uncharted,' and because no institution dictates what it means to play the uke 'correctly,' a climate of experimentation, discovery and quite often dispute surrounds it. No one's really right, no one's really wrong and everyone's free to develop their own style. What more could you ask for?"

UkeWestFest appears at the Cocoanut Grove Ballroom on April 23 and 24. Visit www.ukefestwest.com for a full schedule of performances and workshops.

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From the April 21-28, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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