A Ukulele Weekend
The music of ukuleles flowed richly in my part of the world this weekend, and I drank deeply thereof. The occasion was Ukulele Expo 2002, held in and around Montclair, New Jersey. From the induction of Jonah Kumalae and Jesse Kalima into the Ukulele Hall of Fame to more than a dozen excellent ukulele workshops, from the Global Ukulele Summit at the Living Room Friday night to the big Expo concert in Montclair on Saturday, from the beautiful instruments for sale from the expo vendors to the premiere screenings of "Rock That Uke," it was indeed a time of ukulele abundance. Read on for more!
The festivities began informally on Friday evening with events in Fairfield, New Jersey and at the Living Room, in the East Village, where various expo-goers performed as part of the Global Ukulele Summit. Being in the city already, I chose the latter venue.
First to perform was Vancouver's King of the Ukulele, the inimitable Ralph Shaw, who took the Living Room's tiny stage in his signature bowler hat. In his marvelous voice he crooned ukulele tunes classic and original. Ralph returned regularly as MC of the evening's show.
Next was Azo Bell, who played his own original compositions as well as an excellent Mose Allison cover and a drinking song written by one of his bandmates from the Old Spice Boys of Byron Bay, Australia. Azo plays with great skill and throws surprising flourishes into his performance.
Local players Sonic Uke were up next, followed by rock ukulele pioneer Carmaig de Forest, who sang his haunting original songs. Two more New York bands finished the evening: The Honey Brothers and Songs From a Random House, whose lead singer and baritone ukulele player Steve Swartz arranged the evening. Songs From a Random House also features lead ukulele player Alan Drogin, who plays astounding solos on his concert uke, using distortion, fuzz, and wah-wah to great effect on the band's quirky original tunes.
Ukulele Expo 2002 started officially Saturday morning. The Expo is an annual production of the Ukulele Hall of Fame, whose Board members Dave and Sue Wasser, Tom and Nuni Walsh, and Paul Syphers kept things running smoothly.
This year's event took place at the Woman's Club of Upper Montclair. Yes, "woman" is singular (thank you, Frankie, for pointing this out!) and no, I don't know why either. The Expo's one fault is that there is too much happening at once, and attendees are always forced to choose one attraction at the expense of another, but that's what next year's Expo is for, I suppose.
I opted to start with Jerry Moore's melody-playing workshop, followed by Ron Gordon's ukulele blues workshop. We finished a little early, so I caught the tail end of Jim Beloff's introductory ukulele class. Jim is a ukulele evangelist from Los Angeles whose mission is to spread the joy of ukulele playing to as many people as possible. He emphasizes the coolness of the ukulele, and the ease with which one can start learning to play it. Jim really teaches beginners enough in an hour to play hundreds if not thousands of favorite songs on their ukuleles. Jim also performs and records, runs Flea Market Music, and publishes a great series of Jumpin' Jim songbooks and educational videos.
I couldn't resist going to the "'Ukulele, Hawai'ian-Style" workshop taught by Bryan Tolentino & Asa Young. Bryan and Asa are amazing players and genuinely friendly people. They played two songs with us, teaching strumming and vamping styles that are used in much Hawaiian music. Bryan and Asa were present throughout the Expo, always warmly greeting their students and friends, and welcoming questions and conversation.
After this class I ran upstairs to catch the second half of the premiere of "Rock That Uke," Bill Robertson and Sean Anderson's great documentary on the emerging ukulele rock scene. More on this later, as I saw the whole film the next day.
When the film and the Q&A session were over, I went downstairs to the auditorium where the vendors were. The open mic was going on, and I expected I'd make a circuit of the vendor tables and depart, but I was completely won over by the open mic performers. The novice players couldn't have performed for a more good-natured or friendlier audience, and the more advanced players wowed me with great songs and technical mastery. There were too many to list them all (please, Hall of Fame folks, put up a list of performers and songs so that I can find these people again!) but Bryan and Asa's performance with Hall of Fame Advisory Board member Byron Yasui was a particularly memorable standout.
After a break for dinner, the sizable crowd of ukulele players and fans reconvened for the evening concert. Ralph Shaw started things off and MCed again. He repeated a few tunes from Friday and performed a number of others as well. Ralph was followed by Ukulele Man Tom Harker who sang a number of his own original tunes.
Classical ukulele virtuoso John King closed off the first half of the concert, playing a beautiful and unusual six-stringed instrument tuned to the notes of a guitar, but with the size and voicing of a uke. With the touch of a skilled classical guitarist John played his own arrangements of early Hawaiian melodies. He will be releasing a recording of this music to join his acclaimed set of Bach transcriptions (check here). Songs From a Random House finished the first set. They did a similar set to their Friday night show, but sounded even better in the larger hall.
The second half of the show began with the Aloha Boys, a quartet of Hawaiians currently living near Washington DC. They sang traditional and contemporary Hawaiian songs in beautiful harmony and got quite an ovation from the crowd.
LA's Larry D. was next, channeling Joni Mitchell and others as he covered their songs and accompanied himself on his tenor ukulele. Then he sang his own composition, "Honolulu Surfer Boy," which was undoubtedly the most unique song performed that evening :). The crowd loved it.
Finally, Azo Bell took the stage. I was glad that he was given this slot, as he was undoubtedly the performer who had travelled the farthest to be there. His set was similar to Friday's, but again, the acoustics and the space were much more favorable and he sounded great.
After Sunday morning's extra hour of sleep I returned to the Expo. I had made the difficult decision of forgoing a number of promising workshops so as to attend the entire "Rock That Uke" screening, since it might be some time before I would get another opportunity to see the film. I'm glad that I went, and I sincerely hope I will be able to see it again soon.
Its makers are still working on "Rock That Uke" and very recently added introductory and concluding narration by Holly Hunter, whose voice is a fine complement to their work. The film focuses on the place of the ukulele in todays music, especially as an electrified instrument in rock and punk. Much of the film is derived from interview and performance footage gathered over the past three years, during which time the rock uke scene has grown significantly. The film is quite entertaining and amusing, and although few viewers will enjoy all of the musical styles represented, I doubt that anyone could watch the movie without thoroughly enjoying its numerous high points; there are some very surprising moments of humor, which had the screening audience roaring. I hope that the film will soon find a wider audience through festival or broadcast distribution. You can count on me for at least one DVD sale!
After the screening I returned to the Expo floor to watch the induction of this years honorees into the Ukulele Hall of Fame. Neither inductee is still living, but each family sent a grandson to receive the honor. The audience was treated to two performances as well: the first on vintage ukuleles made by Jonah Kumalae's company, and the second Byron Yasui's spirited take on "Stars and Stripes Forever" in tribute to Jesse Kalima's acclaimed version of that march. And then for a second day I couldn't resist staying until the last note of the open mic had died away.
Thanks to all of the performers and teachers for sharing their music with us, to the vendors who made Montclair a capital of ukulele craftsmanship for the weekend, to Bill Roberston and Sean Anderson for premiering their film for us, and to the Ukulele Hall of Fame for everything. I also want to say mahalo especially to the Hawaiian visitors who brought the Aloha spirit to New Jersey! I hope I'll see everyone there next year!