This past weekend hundreds of ukulele players and fans came together for a jam-packed weekend of playing ukulele, learning new songs and techniques, and listening to inspiring performances from artists Cynthia Lin, Ukulenny, Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel, Aldrine Guerrero & Aaron Nakamura, and Abe Lagrimas Jr.
On October 7-8, Cynthia Lin and Ukulenny hosted the first-ever San Francisco ukulele festival known as SF Uke-tober Fest. Arising from local Bay Area ukulele jams hosted by Cynthia and Ukulenny, the SF Uke-tober Fest brought over 150 ukulele players and fans from around the world to jam with their favorite artists and teachers.
I went to SF Uke-tober Fest to experience the joy of ukulele and to learn more about the amazing community that Cynthia and Ukulenny have built in the Bay Area. What I discovered is a remarkable group who have a passion and love for the ukulele and sharing that magic with others.
Perhaps you’ve wondered what a ukulele festival is like and if you should ever go. Now you can know and see what it is you’re missing!
Bringing Hawaii to the Mainland
The festival kicked off on Saturday with an open invitation for all attendees to meet up at Aloha Warehouse in Japantown, San Francisco, for a “Uke Talk” hosted by owner Jessette Novero.
When you walk into the store your eyes are immediately drawn to the wall of ukuleles.
Myself trying out a ukulele and Jessette Novero making the Hawaiian leis (flower necklaces)
for the ukulele jam performers
No doubt buying a ukulele for the first time can be an intimidating experience but Jessette’s warm personality welcomes you into her shop.
This isn’t your ordinary ukulele shop. Ukuleles range from famous Hawaiian “K” brand ukuleles like Kamaka, Kamoa, and Kanile’a to ukuleles that are perfect for a beginner. For every ukulele that I played, Jessette shared the unique history behind each maker and how that particular instrument was designed in a special way. There’s a reason why Aloha Warehouse is a cornerstone of the ukulele community in San Francisco. You could feel the passion.
If and when you’re ever looking to buy a ukulele, Jessette encourages you to take your time sitting and playing ukuleles in her shop. She told me every ukulele is unique and speaks differently to people, so you might be surprised at what ukulele is right for you!
Jamming With Amazing Ukulele Artists
Later that day close to a hundred people with ukuleles in hand packed into Pa’ina a Hawaiian music venue in the heart of Japantown for the ukulele jam. You could feel the energy and excitement the minute you walked in.
While Cynthia Lin and Ukulenny have been organizing jams just like this one, this jam was special because they were joined by special guests Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel, Aldrine Guerrero & Aaron Nakamura, and Abe Lagrimas Jr.
Cynthia Lin (center) leading the San Francisco Ukulele Jam with special guests
At the beginning of the jam, everyone received chord charts and diagrams to play songs like Stand By Me, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, Creep, Free Fallin’, I’m Yours, and much more. Some songs had specific parts like a lead line, so if you knew how to read ukulele tab, you could play the lead line while others strummed.
Everyone received chord charts with diagrams to play along
The coolest part of the jam is that you could play along or sit back, relax and enjoy the amazing performance. For example, the artists on stage took turns taking solos and shredding while the players in the crowd supported them with rhythm. You couldn’t help but to smile.
Ukulele players reacting to the ukulele jam
My favorite part of the jam was when a group of Cynthia Lin’s students joined her on stage to perform. Additionally, Aldrine Guerrero had a student, who he had never met until the ukulele festival, come up on stage and play a solo rendition of Guerrero’s ukulele arrangement of Carlos Santana’s Europa. You could see how much time and effort it must have taken these students to learn these pieces and they each played an outstanding performance.
The feeling of strumming along with a bunch of other ukulele players is like nothing else. Cynthia Lin and Ukulenny have truly created something special with their ukulele jams.
Learning From Your Favorite Ukulele Teacher
On Sunday morning, the back-to-back ukulele workshops kicked off at Hotel Kabuki in Japantown. This was a chance for ukulele players to learn from their favorite artists.
Workshops ranged from beginner to advanced. For example, if you were new to ukulele, then, you might have chosen Craig Chee’s Ukulele Bootcamp 101 or Cynthia Lin’s Master the Island Strum workshop. But if you had been playing for awhile but weren’t quite to an advanced level, then, Sarah Maisel’s Life After the 3rd Fret or Abe Lagrimas Jr.’s Intro to Improvising would be just for you.
Cynthia Lin teaching the Singing and Strumming workshop
I sat in on Aldrine Guerrero’s Advanced Uke Techniques workshop.
Aldrine taught us how to make your solo ukulele playing sound more vocal-like with hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides and bends. What was really cool was how he took a simple but familiar melody line Mary Had a Little Lamb and turned it into an expressive-sounding melody using these techniques. Later in the workshop he taught us the lightning-fast tremolo technique. We put all the things we learned together to play Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.
Aldrine Guerrero teaching the Advanced Uke Techniques workshop
You could tell the teachers had fun with the workshops. When I walked into Ukulenny’s workshop, he recorded himself playing the twelve-bar blues on one ukulele, looped it, set it down, picked up a ukulele “U-Bass”, and then, recorded a bass line and looped that. From there, he picked up his other ukulele to solo over the twelve-bar blues!
Ukulenny teaching the All the Single Notes workshop
Every teacher took time to interact personally with students, stopping to answer questions, and showing them exactly how to play a technique.
Craig Chee answering a question in the Percussive Side of Ukulele workshop
In addition, workshop attendees took the time to jam and help each other out as they discovered new skills and techniques.
Workshop attendees practicing and learning together
Taking a selfie with Craig Chee after the workshop
The workshops were the biggest part of the festival and did not disappoint. No matter your skill level or your interest there was a workshop for you.
Presenting the All Star Concert
That evening everyone met back at the Hotel Kabuki ballroom for an exciting All Star Concert featuring performances from Cynthia Lin, Ukulenny, Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel, Aldrine Guerrero & Aaron Nakamura, and Abe Lagrimas Jr.
Abe Lagrimas Jr., headliner from the Uke Fest of Great Britain, kicked off the concert with an amazing series of original compositions featuring complex jazzy chords and intricate, lightning-fast melodies. I’ve never seen a ukulele player shred so fast and the crowd was certainly impressed, offering a standing ovation after his performance.
Abe Lagrimas Jr. performing at the All Star Concert
Next, Cynthia Lin performed a set of beautiful songs including covers and originals from her album Ukulele Days which charted at #15 on the Billboard Jazz charts in the first week of release (she spoke highly to me about her fan’s support for this album). During the concert, with a warm and sweet tone, she transported the audience to another world. Joining her was Ukulenny on u-bass and Abe Lagrimas Jr. on ukulele.
Cynthia Lin (center) performing at the All Star Concert with backup from Ukulenny (left) and Abe Lagrimas Jr. (right)
Following Cynthia was an impressive performance from Aldrine Guerrero and Aaron Nakamura representing Ukulele Underground.
Aldrine Guerrero (left) and Aaron Nakamura (right) performing at the All Star Concert
Hailing from the island of Kauai, Hawai’i, Aldrine is a master ukulele player who combines modern-day pop sensibilities with intricate solo ukulele arrangements pulling from Hawaiian ukulele tradition. With support on rhythm guitar from Aaron Nakamura, they played an engaging set with performances ranging from pop, Hawaiian, soloing, flamenco, and singing.
Nakamura even surprised the crowd with a fun performance of George Michael’s Careless Whisper. The crowd loved it and chanted “Nakamura!” after the song.
Next Craig Chee and Sarah Maisel came on stage to play a full band set comprised of jazzy ukulele songs. Maisel’s voice soothes and woos you with a warm, rich and dynamic tone while Chee’s harmonies add depth to the sound. Chee and Maisel’s arrangements are beautiful and well-thought out. In fact, they explained during the concert they each individually play a ukulele tuned in standard tuning and then another ukulele tuned in baritone re-entrant tuning (high d-string) in order to create a full sound.
Sarah Maisel (left) and Craig Chee (right) performing at the All Star Concert
To finish the concert, Craig and Sarah invited all the other ukulele artists on stage to close out with one final song.
All the ukulele artists performing a final song at the All Star Concert
The energy at the concert was electric and the performances were inspiring. Because there were so many fellow ukulele players in the audience, I think we all understood how difficult and impressive the performances were. This is a group of artists, teachers and performers who have put a lifetime of effort and time into developing their craft and skills. Although I might be speaking for everyone, there was a feeling of inspiration to continue learning and growing as ukulele players.
Upcoming Ukulele Events
I wanted to come to SF Uke-tober Fest this year to experience the power of ukulele players coming together and making music. What Cynthia Lin and Ukulenny have created with SF Uke-tober Fest is a special ukulele community connecting the Bay Area together while rippling out to the rest of the world. And you can be apart of this too!
To be apart of the fun and join Cynthia Lin and Ukulenny for a future ukulele jam, check out the Holiday Uke Jam coming up on December 9, 2017.
Additionally, find and learn more about the other amazing ukulele teachers and artists here:
- Craig Chee & Sarah Maisel are about to go on a UK tour. Get the full details on their upcoming events page here.
- Aldrine Guerrero & Aaron Nakamura teach ukulele online at Ukulele Underground and have also created the internet’s largest online ukulele forum.
- Abe Lagrimas Jr. wrote the book Jazz Ukulele published by Berklee Press.
With all the excitement following SF Uke-tober Fest I look forward to seeing if there is another next year!