From the Summer 2017 issue of Ukulele | BY UKULENNY
San Francisco, land of rumbling cable cars, sourdough bread bowls, and Tony Bennett’s voice ringing in the night sky after a Giant’s baseball game at AT&T Park. It may not sound exactly like it would be a tropical ukulele paradise, but beneath its foggy exterior is one of the world’s finest ukulele scenes.
Every uke town has to have its ukulele hub, and for San Francisco, Aloha Warehouse, a Hawaiian goods shop in Japantown, does the trick. A true ukulele enthusiast, Edgar Dang, opened the shop in 2005, and since then it has grown to be a central watering hole for fellow uke lovers in the Bay Area. Edgar’s unexpected death in 2015 shocked the community, but his legacy and love for ukuleles lives on with the Warehouse’s new ownership under Jessette Paaga and her husband PeeWee.
“I can’t fill Edgar’s shoes,” says Jessette, “He had really big shoes. And we still have people come in to see how things are going, to look at his picture, or just to hang out.”
Paaga also commented on her customers that visit from the entire San Francisco Bay Area and beyond, whether from the EU, Japan, Canada, and even people from Hawaii who are visiting the area.
“People come in and they become regulars. Hopefully it’s because of the aloha spirit,” Paaga says. “Whether through the ukuleles, giving them a taste of home, or just to come and sit and talk story, there are a few people who’ve said it’s cheaper than getting an airline ticket to Hawaii.” With Hawaiian snacks like Hurricane Popcorn and macadamia shortbread cookies, a variety of Hawaiian seasonings and soy sauce, aloha gear, and even coconut bras, you can definitely get your fix at Aloha Warehouse. And let’s not forget the most important part—a wall filled with ukuleles.
“Edgar used to say, ‘If you don’t love it, you’re not going to play it, so it’s got to speak to you.’”
Before owning Aloha Warehouse, Jessette and her family were avid customers. Her husband and two daughters play the ukulele, so they would often go to the shop in search for another uke to take home. They also had close ties with the store through Leah, Edgar’s sister. Jessette’s daughters went to school with Leah’s sons, and in the Islander community, when you’re friends, you’re family. To Jessette, it made perfect sense for her to enter the ukulele business.
“My favorite part about working here is seeing the new faces, the excitement of all the ukulele players looking for a new ukulele. We get to meet them, talk to them, and find out what’s motivating them to play. Some of them are complete beginners taking a class from local teachers at the Japanese Cultural Center. We have players of any age, from four-year-olds, first graders upgrading their ukes, and just the other day we had one of our 88-year-old regulars buy a ukulele for his girlfriend!”
Jessette loves her ukulele “characters” that roam the store, and ukulele lovers around the world are returning to the store daily for “just one more” ukulele. It’s truly a family affair, too—at any point you might see a cousin or a brother-in-law behind the counter, family members handcrafting leis, and “unofficial” nephew Will Chu teaching and selling ukuleles at the Great Wall of Uke. It just goes to show that the aloha spirit is alive and well in the heart of Japantown, San Francisco.
Pa’ina Lounge and Restaurant
Walk down the street and you’ll find yourself at Pa’ina Lounge and Restaurant. With traditional appetizers like Spam musubi, to more modern bites like kalua pork nachos and poke tacos, its Hawaiian-inspired menu will move the aloha spirit from your heart to your stomach. Pa’ina also hosts live music monthly, and is the home of SF Uke Jam, a freeform ukulele group run by YouTubers Cynthia Lin and yours truly, Ukulenny. Ukulele players all over the Bay flock to Pa’ina to enjoy a uke jam session, eat delicious food, and perhaps an adult beverage or two.
SF Uke Jam: Kani ka pila Meets Rock ’n’ Roll
Since founding the SF Uke Jam in 2013, Cynthia and I have hosted themed ukulele gatherings such as the ’80s Uke Jam, Island Style/Reggae Jam, Movie Madness, and the most well-attended: the Beatles Uke Jam (go figure!).
The SF Uke Jam is not your average strum- and sing-along—it’s more like a rock concert experience, with a hundred ukes jamming in surround sound. You can usually expect a few guest musicians, including David Kelly on bass and Albert Aumentado on guitar. I usually switch from ukulele to cajón while Cynthia sings lead. The all-glass light-up stage, fluorescent décor, and cavernous audience area all contribute to a unique ambiance. The entire lower floor of the restaurant is crowded with ukuleles, music stands, family members singing along, while the regulars watch on the upper floor, wondering what the deal is. It’s definitely a sight to see on a Sunday afternoon.
The most exciting gathering, perhaps, is the open-mic portion, where attendees can sign-up to perform on the glittery light-up stage in front of dozens of other uke players. You might hear the hapa-haole tunes of Erich Sylvester, country folk and bluegrass tones of Rich and John, and the 12-year-old Jake Shimada, who always stuns the crowd with a rocking version of Santana’s instrumental “Europa.” Local ukulele groups such as the San Francisco Ukulele Rebellion, Hilltop Ukulele Lovers’ Academy, and Cynthia Lin’s ukulele classes have also shared the SF Uke Jam stage. Besides the regulars that come out to play, it’s a real treat to watch newer ukulele players courageously take their first plunge into performing in front of others.
Rudy Ramirez Jr. and Julia Ramirez, yet another husband and wife team, are long time members of the group. Rudy even contributes his masterful chord charts to the jams, from his library of hundreds of chord charts that he’s created. They recently started participating in the open-mic portion, and had much to say about their experience.
Beung Kwon, owner and manager of Pa’ina Lounge, did not know that ukulele players were part of the deal when he inherited the business from previous ownership, along with his partners, Gabe Yee, Jasper Yuan, and Jeremy Jong. “Over the years, we’ve been trying to understand the scene,” says Kwon. “We had really no idea how it was, and we’ve grown to enjoy it. I didn’t realize there’s such a variety of people that come to the uke jam, I was surprised to find that older and younger people can all play the uke together.” Beung’s favorite part is also the open mic, stating it’s the “most memorable part, allowing people who ultimately don’t have experience performing, to perform in front of a huge crowd.”
Set Sail for San Francisco
The uke scene of San Francisco seems to grow stronger every day. The last SF Uke Jam meeting, the “Beatles Jam,” was standing-room only to the tune of about 150 uke players. Hopefully you can come out to the city sometime, to see what all the noise is about.
Fog City Hotspots
Bi-weekly meetings and events
Bi-monthly jams for the local ukulele community
sfukejam.tumblr.com and on Facebook: SF Uke Jam
This annual one-day event is the longest-running ukulele festival on the mainland. Held the last weekend of April at Chabot College in Hayward, California, it’s about 45 minutes from San Francisco and features guests including Bryan Tolentino, Chris Kamaka, and Herb Ohta Jr., as well as a host of local ukulele groups and halaus. ukulelefestivalnorcal.org
August 6–7, 2017
This two-day Japanese culture festival has a strong ukulele presence. Even the fundraiser shows draw ukulele talent, with ukulele artists such as Steven Espaniola, Ben Ahn, and Kalei Gamiao performing for the large street fair, held in early August. nihonmachistreetfair.org
July 29, 2017
Hosted by Yerba Buena Gardens Festival, an arts organization that runs events in YBG and other public sites in San Francisco, the SF Uke Jam Summer Uke-splosion will be an afternoon of aloha and music in the summer sun. Performances, strum-and-sing-alongs, and special hula appearances. ybgfestival.org
FOOD & DRINK
Hawaiian- and Asian-inspired food and drinks
A legendary tiki bar/restaurant in the Fairmont Hotel, complete with a lagoon and regular “thunderstorms.”
A kitschy, contemporary, and very popular bar for exotic drinks.
Part ukulele store, part Hawaiian cultural shop