By Greg Olwell
This past weekend marked the 22nd annual Ukulele Festival of Northern California. The event is the longest-running ukulele festival on the mainland and is not just a great place to hear, see, and play many ukuleles—it’s a cornerstone of the San Francisco Bay Area’s Polynesian community.
The one-day event is held at Chabot College in Hayward, California, about 25 miles from San Francisco and featured many booths offering leis, jewelry, clothing, and of course, ukes. A large grassy area outside the performance hall stayed in the sun all day and served as a meeting place for the many performers throughout the day. (The organizers claimed there were over 200 performers in the daylong concert, from regional ukulele clubs to some big-name pickers, who played 10-minute sets.)
The festival also joined in the celebration of Kamaka’s 100th anniversary, with the classic Honolulu-maker the focus of this year’s festival. The company had a large booth and showed off a few ukuleles and Kamaka-branded gear. As fun as the front of the booth was, the booth’s rear was popular with the artists for sitting and jamming. The best part is that it was open to the crowd, so we could all get close and watch masters like Bryan Tolentino, Herb Ohta Jr, and Kalei Gamiao gracefully play through classics. The warmth and support between the musicians was inspiring and always playful. They took moments to teach parts to players who didn’t know them and never forgot to tease each other.
The festival also featured several moments of appreciation for the festival’s founders, “uncles” Hollis Baker and John Ogao, who founded the festival:
- “To promote and perpetuate the playing of ‘ukulele music and culture by bringing all ages and levels together to share ‘ukulele talent.
- To provide a kani ka pila (play music) environment as an inspiration to our youth with the hope that they will keep the traditions and music of our heritage alive.
- To provide a venue touched by the Spirit of Aloha for all persons to enjoy.”