Austin may tout itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” but San Antonio is undeniably the “Ukulele Capital of Texas”—and at no time is this more evident than in April, during the annual Texas Uke Fest. The three-day event is one of several national festivals (and the only one in Texas) that celebrates the diminutive instrument. Each year, about 150 people travel to Lions Field recreation center near Brackenridge Park to sign up for a busy schedule of ukulele workshops and performances. Having recently inherited a ukulele, I decided to join their ranks.
After all, the ukulele has been on the rise lately, and the image of Tiny Tim tiptoeing through the tulips is being replaced by rockers like Eddie Vedder and Elvis Costello, whose fondness for the zippy little musical device has given it a new credibility. Uke festivals have been springing up across the country; San Antonio’s started in 2002, and the most recent one was inaugurated in 2006 in New York City. Having long since abandoned dreams of playing the guitar (which, with my stubby fingers, was literally beyond my grasp), I hoped that the uke would be a better fit.
Fortunately, the first day of the festival was geared toward beginners like me, who sheepishly straggled into one of the center’s meeting rooms. There we were met by Joyce Flaugher, the festival’s organizer, sporting a colorful muumuu, a soprano uke, and a beaming smile. Joyce’s sister Beverly Gagliardi, similarly attired and toting a slightly larger baritone uke, soon joined us.
The sisters’ enthusiasm for all things uke proved infectious as they showed us hesitant newcomers how to shape our fingers into an F chord, then quickly led us through the paces of “Frère Jacques.” Next came the C and G chords, and within minutes, we added “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to our repertoire. I was astounded at how quickly everyone seemed to be progressing, myself included. “Make a joyful noise!” Joyce encouraged. Before long, we cast all shyness aside as we strummed along rhythmically, unabashedly belting out “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” What can I say? It wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll, but I liked it.
Part of the appeal of the ukulele is how quickly a few songs can be mastered. Unlike guitar chords, which sometimes require awkward hand contortions, most basic uke chords use only two or three fingers. Comparing uke to the guitar, one of the workshop leaders, Pops Bayless, commented: “Take away two strings … SHAZAM!! Four strings, four fingers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out.” I was the perfect case in point.
“Most people can’t even say the word ukulele without smiling,” confirmed Joyce Flaugher. Something about the little instrument just seems to inspire joy. Perhaps the reason can be found in its chipper sound, its miniature size, or its ability to conjure reveries of seaside vacations. A participant from Dallas, Mark Levine, surmised, “It’s an easy instrument to play. There’s satisfaction and joy in being able to create your own music. … Plus, it’s like a cheap trip to Hawaii.” Whatever the reason, everyone showed up for the second day of the festival grinning.
The workshops scheduled for that day were more challenging, and there were more of them, taking place in four different spaces at the same time. I scanned the program, deliberating between “Uke Can Play Mariachi” and “Uke Can Clawstrum,” certain that I would be hopeless at either.
Pops Bayless was already drawing a crowd for his workshop featuring songs inspired by the jazz age. “We have a lot of repeat offenders here,” he jokingly remarked, scanning the room. The festival attracts folks of all ages from across Texas and beyond, and I counted a doctor, poet, retired law enforcement officer, and home-school family among the attendees. People pressed into the available space, many of them clad in Hawaiian-print shirts or ukulele-themed attire.
As I navigated through the crowd, I headed in the direction of a workshop mysteriously titled “Hoosier Hotshots.” Once I’d found a seat, I gripped my uke and struggled to keep up with the onslaught of new chord progressions and fast-paced, funny lyrics presented by Geoff Davis, an instructor from Indiana. I mangled the music, but no one seemed to care—everyone was having too good a time.
The good times continued on the last day of the festival, which coincided with the Alamo Aloha Fiestaval. This annual event, honoring the cultural legacy of the Pacific Islands, is held at Lady Bird Johnson Park, just north of the city. We packed up our ukes and reconvened at our new location, where we were greeted with a full-on explosion of aloha. The park’s gymnasium was decked out with fake palm trees, providing a tropical setting for a troupe of dancers in coconut brassieres who mesmerized the audience with the swishing motion of their grass skirts. Outside, vendors manned booths offering “shave ice” and beachwear, and throngs of people milled about, adorned in fragrant leis and indulging in Hawaiian delicacies such as huli-huli chicken and kalua pig with cabbage.
The workshops that day focused on Hawaiian music, in tribute to the ukulele’s geographic heritage. My head was spinning from having absorbed so much new information in just three days. As I sat down to rest my sore fingers, a group of boisterous ukulele performers took the stage. The cheerful sound of ukes played in unison filled the gymnasium. For the performers, this was the last hurrah before everyone would go their separate ways, returning to their respective towns or states. Several folks had traveled quite a distance to be there—some from as far away as California and Michigan.
Like them, the ukulele has come a long way. Developed in Hawaii in the 1880s, the instrument found its way to the mainland in 1915, where it became an instant success, only to have its popularity wane as it was gradually eclipsed by the guitar. Yet festivals like this one are keeping interest in the ukulele alive for generations to come. One joke that I overheard at the festival sums it up perfectly: A boy told his mother, “I want to be a ukulele player when I grow up.” “Now son,” she replied, “you know you can’t do both.” If the Texas Uke Fest has its way, the ukulele, too, will never get old.
The Alamo Aloha Fiestaval is on Apr. 19, 2008, from noon-8 p.m., at Lady Bird Johnson Park (in the Lou Hamilton Community Center), 10700 Nacogdoches Rd., San Antonio, 210/822-9933; www.alohasanantonio.com. Admission is free. Uke workshops that day cost $15 each.