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THE CALIFORNIA UKULELE SCENE
This week, the Ukulele goes to California
When I was 13, my high school English teacher always said that nothing could ever be nice. She claimed it was an act of feeble biased that indicated no opinion. There is merit to her claim, because if everything is nice, then in turn, nothing could be nice – they would be normal.
At university we were given countless ways to describe a musician, the piece of music, the acoustics, the quality of the sound produced, the techniques used and so on. It ultimately corrupted my perception of music. Talk to anyone who has every taken music onto tertiary level, their brain will almost certainly have been coded with this inherit idea that even the most simple motif on television; can be pull apart like a tug-of-war rope.
Which brings me on to the ukulele music from California; start of Route 66, home of the ecclesiastical vine of Zinfandel and the closest international airport to the Ukulele’s birthplace.
Hawaii became the 50th American state in 1959. Being home to the Ukulele, its no wonder that its introduction to American culture arrived in California, a few months before the swinging 60s entered –and never left by the sounds of it.
Since 1994, John Ogao and Hollis Baker set up The North California Ukulele Festival to encourage students of San Francisco Bay to come together and collaborate with members of California’s surviving Polynesian community. Respectfully being indigenous to Hawaii themselves, their aims were very simple: inspire the youth and keep their traditions alive. Evidence of this shows as the Festival will be organising themselves for the 24th time in a few months.
It has to be said Hollis Baker made one hell of a name for himself and his origins in his 79-year life span. The half Hawaiian - half German was respected from festivals to performances, leaving an obituary that reads like an outstanding report card. Founder of the Barker Quarter with his brothers after surviving Pear Harbour, establishing a festival with members of his proud community, pioneering musician - if it had to do with his instrument, he was there. He even came up with a well-respected definition for the instrument. In his language, it translated to ‘jumping fleas’.
I do empathise with that definition. Listen to some recordings of Hollis play demonstrates a beautiful contrast between brisk fast styles, to dulcet sweet strums of his ancestors. His right hand must have been made from Teflon or stainless steel to say the least. His strumming techniques don't look like just the tips of his fingers / fingernails; but most of the front of his hand when he enters a challenging or constantly changing phrase of chord patterns. I’d like to see Donald Trump shake his hand and live to tell the tale!
I’m sure for Ogao and Baker, their idea of a Ukulele festival may have been thought as a once off. It’s now sponsored by some of the major Ukulele manufacturers, suppliers and teachers throughout the state, and indeed, the country. One to note here is Kanile’a Ukuleles. A quick search of the website proves they aren’t just a small pop-up at the festival, rather a major supplier of Lucifers tropical lute around the globe.
Kanile’a specialise not just the basic treble/concert ukuleles for students and the beginner; but personalised Hawaiian-made pieces of beauty in for the ukulele enthusiast. Their range of soprano, tenor, super tenor and concert instruments are in constant supply to incredibly talented musicians like the Spanish / Indian sounds of Jody Kamisato, the new-age pop fusion of Matt Dahlberg, “popcorn popping” and the peacefully serenading voice of Lina Girl Langi – not to mention the fat bloke who sings Somewhere over the Rainbow on YouTube: Israel Kamakawiwo'ole – owns a ukulele from Kanile’a.
I must admit I am crushing every instinct of my musical brain to finish the article about some genuinely inspirational people in the way I usually do. For this area of America, I have listening to hours and hours of music from California; not just on the ukulele but also instruments of its surrounds. And my conclusion is this: it's just nice!
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