It’s a uke thing

Uke devotees come together at second annual We Heart Ukulele Fest

Craig Chee tears it up at We Heart Ukulele finale.

Craig Chee tears it up at We Heart Ukulele finale.

Photo By ken smith

We Heart Ukulele Festival, Feb. 15 & 16, Trinity United Methodist Church.

Last Saturday morning, while stopping by the downtown 7-Eleven, I was bombarded with questions from a disheveled man standing out front about the contents of the instrument case strapped across my back.

“It’s a what? A which? A uka-huh? Do ya squeeze it like this?” he asked, plunging his hands in and out as if squeezing an accordion to death.

Though ukuleles are much more commonly seen today than in years past, it’s a question we uke-playing folk often hear. Not that most of us mind, I think, because if there’s one thing ukulele players like to talk about, it’s ukuleles.

To many devotees—myself included—the appeal of these oddly-tuned, four-string wonders transgresses interest to obsession. This can be problematic, as often our friends, significant others, and fellow musicians are not similarly afflicted. At best they don’t get it, at worst they relegate us to plink and strum away in private, not sharing our joy over limited-edition runs of resonator ukes or the triumph of mastering the E chord.

Which brings me back to last Saturday (Feb. 16); my destination that morning was a rare opportunity for uku-philes to congregate and indulge our fanaticism for these diminutive delights, the second annual We Heart Ukulele Festival.

The two-day festival, held at Trinity United Methodist Church, kicked off the previous evening with song circles, sing-a-longs and a screening of Under the Boardwalk: A Ukulele Love Story, a uke-centric film about a crew of Santa Cruz enthusiasts.

Working it out at the Fingerpicking Patterns workshop.

Photo By Ken Smith

The bulk of Saturday was devoted to workshops. The organizers of the festival assembled an impressive team of instructors from near and far to help players of all levels improve their chops. Each of four time slots offered three 75-minute classes to choose from, and picking one over another was difficult. Workshops were assigned recommended skill levels (1-4, based on one’s familiarity with the instrument), and all of them seemed promising.

I couldn’t resist starting with a class taught by Chico’s own Bill Unger, co-founder of the Chico Ukulele Club. Unger was sharing arrangements of songs by 17th-century blind Irish harpist Turlough O’Carolan that he’d adapted to the ukulele and that I’d previously had the pleasure of seeing him perform.

I also attended a ’70s Pop Song workshop by Oregonian ukulelist Brook Adams and, being a big fan of gospel music, a session that focused on spiritual songs taught by what might be Chico’s only uke-playing pastor, David Vallelunga.

I found all three workshops incredibly valuable. In each, the focus wasn’t the particular songs we played, but specific skills that could be conveyed through the songs. Though I didn’t leave a master of O’Carolan’s catalogue, I learned more about adding melodies to my strumming. I might hate the Eagles and likely will never play “Life in the Fast Lane” again as long as I live, but it opened my eyes to the potential of adding a note to certain chords to splatter some funk on them. One song I will play again—often—is the arrangement of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” taught by the strumming holy man.

For the last session, I decided to wander and catch a glimpse of each workshop. Every class I checked in on made me wish I could get the full dose of each.

By day the church’s main meeting hall was a vendor area offering displays from local music stores, CDs and other merch from visiting artist instructors and hand-made uke crafts. In the evening, the vendors made way for the festival’s finale, featuring performances from many of the masters in attendance.

Aside from being enjoyable and at times (e.g., visiting instructor Craig Chee’s lightning-fast strumming) incredible, the final show’s greatest triumph was illustrating the range of the ukulele, each player’s style distinctly different with songs running the gamut from endearingly simple to strikingly complex.

And therein lies the appeal of the ukulele, as wonderfully represented by this festival, which really had something for first-time strummers, veteran musicians and non-playing fans. I recommend everyone pick up a uke now, maybe even join the Chico Uke Group meet-ups on first Tuesdays at Trinity (beginner lessons start at 6:30 p.m., with open jams beginning at 7 p.m.). If you give it a chance, you’ll likely be as eager as I am for next year’s festival.