L.A. Celebrates “Mighty Uke”

By Audrey Coleman

Uke FestivalI can’t lay claim to the nomenclature. It comes from the title of an enchanting and informative 2010 documentary titled Mighty Uke: The Amazing Comeback of a Musical Underdog produced by Tony Coleman (no relation) and Margaret Meagher. The words beautifully capture the feistiness of those who have embraced the instrument since its adoption by Hawaiians and westerners living in the islands a little over a hundred years ago. A child’s toy, a marker of Hawaiian identity, a vehicle for pop and jazz genres, an instrument worthy of symphonic accompaniment. Whether fashioned of Hawaiian koa wood with mother-of-pearl inlay or crafted in durable plastic, the ukulele has been at various times all these things and more. Find out for yourself at the Los Angeles International Ukulele Festival happening on Saturday, September 26, 2015 at Torrance Cultural Arts Center.

Troy Fernandez
Troy Fernandez headlines a full roster of uke luminaries for the September 26 Los Angeles Ukulele Festival.

One thing about ukulele festivals: they are not designed for sitting back and merely being entertained. In Uke events happening throughout the country and around the world, there is always time reserved for jamming and learning. You don’t have to bring a ukulele with you; in fact, there will certainly be some basic ukes for sale at the festival. You also have the right to fold your arms and soak it all in without participating. But the performance schedule shows an opening 10am “Group Strum” led by local player and the teacher Cali Rose. Virtually all of the featured performers will be leading workshops from blank- slate beginner level to show-me-something-I-don’t-know advanced. Among the higher profile musicians are Oahu-born Troy Fernandez who gained fame offering contemporary Hawaiian fare as part of the K’au Crater Boys, Sarah Maisel, known for injecting earthy blues and jazz sounds into her uke playing, Abe Lagrimas, whose jazz improvisations contrast Maisel’s, and New Mexico-based Heidi Swedberg, as renown for her creative gatherings of uke players in Santa Fe and Mexico as she is for her playing. Quite a deal – for just $35 you can listen, learn, laugh, browse vendor exhibits of instruments and gear, eat from gourmet food trucks, and park for free from 10am to 6pm.

To find out about the other performers/teachers such Danielle Ate the Sandwich and Bartt “Fancy Fngers” Warburton, walk your fingers to losangelesukulelefestival.com or kalakoa.com. The talent is a line-up worthy of producer Mitch Chang, who gave us the Los Angeles Slack Key Guitar Festival, now approaching year nine, and the younger LA Flamenco Festival. Although many of the featured performers have a strong connection to Hawaii, Mitch told me he has been careful not to focus too narrowly on the culture of the islands. This seems in keeping with Mighty Uke’s global appeal. Let’s see if September 26 marks the beginning of another LA festival tradition.

Torrance Cultural Arts Center is located at 3330 Civic Center Drive, Torrance, CA 90503.

Audrey Coleman is a writer, educator, and ethnomusicologist who explores world and traditional musics in Southern California and beyond.