Icons of Santa Cruz: Fountain of Uke – how Santa Cruz fell in love with the friendly, humble ukulele

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The Ukulele Club has its roots in the 1990s. Back then, a few respected Santa Cruz musicians, such as Bob Brozman, Oliver Brown and Rick “Ukulele Dick” McKee, were really exploring the range and depth of the ukulele, and many musicians touring Hawaii, where the ukulele was never a joke, exposed Santa Cruz audiences to the joys of the uke. But mostly, it was under the radar.

Michael McGee (left) and Peter Thomas (right) of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz at Joe’s Pizza & Subs prepare for their upcoming 20th anniversary show at the Rio Theater.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

At the time, artist Peter Thomas hosted an annual party where he invited his fellow musicians to jam together. One year he learned that Jim Beloff, a musician who was one of the first ukulele evangelists, was visiting the Bay Area. Thomas knew next to nothing about the ukulele, but he had seen Ukulele Dick perform and was inspired to host an open mic night with local musicians and invite Beloff to attend. The party was a big hit, the uke did its alluring magic, and the ukulele party became an annual tradition, increasing buzz and attendance year after year.

Soon, Thomas and his uke-loving friend Andy Andrews decided to start a social club based on a love of the ukulele and its adaptability to many types of participatory music-making. “Our band’s first foundation,” Thomas said, “was people who loved Tin Pan Alley, like what Ukulele Dick did, or people who loved Hawaiiana.”

Hawaii and its influence on Santa Cruz has been and continues to be a major factor in the growing cultural reach of the ukulele. When the club was founded, Santa Cruz-based Dancing Cat Records was a leading distributor of Hawaiian guitar recordings. It brought “island famous” artists such as Ledward Kaapana and Dennis Kamakahi to the mainland. The fledgling Uke Club contacted these artists and invited them to attend their meetings.

“It reminded me a bit of the old movie Blue Brothers,” said Sandor Nagyszalanczy, who has been with the club since its inception. “They were like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be great if we could get some good old blues players in this thing? Well, what could it hurt? Let’s call them. It was really a bit like that with the Hawaiians. Basically, they were happy to come and play for us, right from the start.

My personal theory is that ukuleles are to our other stringed instruments what puppies are to adult dogs or babies to adults. You just want to hold one.

—Sandor Nagyszalanczy

The club continually topped its halls until it finally landed at Bocci’s Cellar in the Harvey West neighborhood of Santa Cruz, the club’s home base for several years before the pandemic. A typical Bocci club meeting would feature several dozen uke players dressed in aloha shirts, passing around or sharing sheet music, following a song leader or two to a number of popular tunes from Tin Pan Alley to Motown to the Beatles. They encouraged newcomers to follow along, sometimes on borrowed uke, and choose a few simple chords, often drawn on giant cardboard panels. As a listening experience, club meetings were rarely more than blurry and chaotic. But that was not the goal. At that prom, there were no wallflowers. Everyone was a player, because the ukulele made it an easy entry point.

“My personal theory is that ukuleles are for our other stringed instruments,” Nagyszalanczy said, “like puppies are for adult dogs, or babies are for adults. You just want to hold one.

The club’s co-founder, Andrews, eventually moved to Hawaii, and Nagyszalanczy inherited from Andrews the responsibility of creating the songbooks from which the club derives its material. The self-published books contain the chords of 200 songs, and this year Nagyszalanczy will publish the fifth such songbook.

Members of the Ukulele Club jam at Twin Lakes State Beach.

Members of the Ukulele Club jam at Twin Lakes State Beach.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

“It will take us to a thousand (songs),” he said. “As a rule, I create four to eight new scores for each meeting. We printed them and we will play them. And I always take notes, because some of them are funny, and some of them are really dogs. And I remove the dogs and keep the good ones for the next songbook.

During the pandemic, the club ceased its monthly meetings at Bocci. Some participated in online events or Facebook Live. As the pandemic began to abate, Bocci’s, under new management (and renamed Urbani Cellar), became unusable and the club began meeting in other locations – the Food Lounge in downtown Santa Cruz , or Joe’s Pizza and Subs on Water Street. In recent months, weekly gatherings outdoors have multiplied – Saturday on the beach near the Crow’s Nest and Sunday at the Capitola Esplanade Bandstand. Although there is considerable overlap with the two bands, they are each distinct, with their own vibe and habits.

Pat Tracy is a musician and luthier who is a lead vocalist at the Sunday morning Capitola gathering. He has been part of the group for more than a decade. Before joining the Uke Club, he said, “Maybe I had a few close friends. Now I have at least 50 close friends.

Linda Baker sings and plays guitar with a band called Backyard Birds. She met all of her bandmates through Uke Club. She was a college music student and performed regularly in her youth, before a long dry spell from playing music regularly. “It brought music back into my life,” she said, “and I never expected it. Our band is pretty strong, and that’s because we hang out together. We celebrate birthdays. We have potlucks. Sometimes I have big jam sessions in my side yard.

The club was never a formal entity. To participate, everyone just needs to show up. Real ukuleles – as opposed to plastic toys meant to hang on the wall – are sold at many local music stores. A beginner’s uke costs around $60. The more expensive ones are usually made from research materials and have a richer tone.

Baker suggests not showing up until 10 a.m. Saturday at Crow’s Nest or Sunday at Capitola. “Everyone has their desk. So get on your feet, or come see me or another song manager and we’ll connect you with someone to play with,” she said. “And if you know a C (chord), it’s just a finger on a string. You can just play this whenever a C appears.

There might be thriving ukulele clubs in Kansas, Arizona, or Fresno. But one of uke’s strongest appeals is its deep association with the beach. In practice, it is much more at home on the range than most musical instruments.

“There’s a bit of sand in it, just shake it off,” Cam Sobalvarro said. “Now, I wouldn’t take my $3,000 Martin guitar to the beach, would I? But the ukulele is small enough and usually cheap enough that you can take it for a day at the beach.

Cam Sobalvarro has been playing with the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz for over 10 years.

Cam Sobalvarro has been playing with the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz for over 10 years.

(Kevin Painchaud / Belvedere Santa Cruz)

As with many love stories, Sobalvarro’s relationship with the uke began at the beach. “I bought a quality instrument from a music store in Hawaii,” he said, “and played this little ukulele every day for two weeks on the beach and fell for it. lover.”

That was over two decades ago. Since then, his love has turned into respect. “You can actually make great music on it, empowering music, interesting music. And it doesn’t have to be played on its own. You can play ukulele in a band. I mean, it doesn’t show up much in contemporary pop music, but it shows. And this does not come across as a joke. It’s just a different tone,” he said. “And that’s what I’ve wanted to see ever since I first picked up a ukulele, that it just become another option for making music, another color. You can go to any big city and buy an instrument for $50 or $3000. The fact that music stores keep ukuleles ($3000) in stock tells me that someone is buying them. And, let me tell you, they sound like a dream. And they don’t look like Tiny Tim at all.

The Santa Cruz Ukulele Club 20th anniversary celebration will take place next Thursday, March 17, at the Teatro Rio de Santa Cruz. Free entry. The festivities, with a screening of the documentary “Under the Boardwalk” by Nina Koocher, begin at 5:30 p.m.

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