Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - October 8, 2010

Strings on the upswing

New Peninsula ukulele jams are drawing singing crowds

by Rebecca Wallace

It takes all kinds for a ukulele jam.

You've got the people sitting up front with their own gleaming ukes and digital clip-on tuners. They know all the songs. They can play while looking up.

Then there are the newbies, their brows furrowed as they construct a G7 chord on a borrowed instrument. To sing and strum at the same time in "(How Much Is) That Doggie In The Window," that's like a small victory.

The nice thing about these evening jams at Dana Street Roasting Company in Mountain View is that both ends of the spectrum are equally welcome. So far, Ukulele Club Silicon Valley has held only a handful of these second-Monday-of-the-month jams at the cafe, but there are plenty of regulars who greet each other with grins, strum in synchronicity and sing with harmony.

Meanwhile, club founder Dave Fichtner also makes ample room for beginners. He offers loaner ukuleles and intro group lessons at 6:30, before the jam starts in earnest at 7. His wife, Lynn Bent, helps by holding up pieces of paper with each chord written large.

"Who's here for a uke lesson? Do you need a uke?" Fichtner calls out on a recent Monday as a crowd gathers. "Anyone need their ukulele tuned?"

All the while, another Dave — club regular Dave Wenrick, in a Hawaiian shirt and lei — is handing out lyric sheets with chords for simple two-chord tunes: "Down in the Valley," "Clementine." Before long, even the first-timers are matching finger to fret.

Fichtner circulates, demonstrating chords and something called "the New York strum."

"It's not magic," he reassures a teenager. "Any fingers you want to use you can use."

Everyone seems engaged, even though it's dinner time for many. A man in a flannel shirt deftly switches between strumming and sipping soup. Fichtner beams at the newcomers. "This is just your first night — you've already played a bunch of songs!"

He also has a tip to pass along, one he learned when he first dropped by a ukulele jamboree. It was about two years ago, and he was visiting the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz with no idea how to play. The club president showed him how to construct the easiest chords, then gave him a piece of advice, which Fichtner reiterates now: "Play C and sing loud. This is the chord that goes with everything."

During a break in tonight's jam, Fichtner admits the uke is the only instrument that he's ever had success with, but it's worked for him. He started Ukulele Club Silicon Valley earlier this year, and now holds weekly jams in his Ladera home along with the Dana Street evenings.

There are a lot of ukes in that Ladera home now, his wife says. Maybe about 16.

Or maybe more, Fichtner says sheepishly. "I keep a uke in the car, so I can always pull one out wherever I want."

For Nick Chaput, the amicable owner of the Dana Street Roasting Company, the ukulele jams are part of the cafe's community. Sometimes 60 to 80 people show up and the place really gets rocking, he says.

Chaput met Fichtner in a dog park. They got to talking, and before long Chaput had agreed to host the club one night a month. He says it fits in perfectly with the cafe's other live music and the general cast of interesting characters who come in and out the door. "This is like theater every day and I'm the producer," he says, grinning.

Sometimes it's a bittersweet production. One night Chaput was in the back and heard the club start singing and playing "Puff the Magic Dragon." He admits he got a little choked up. "It sent me back to age 6. It just really touched me."

It doesn't take long after 7 p.m. tonight to get the jam going strong. The crowd has grown from about 15 players to upwards of 35. Yellow binders of sheet music have been widely disseminated even to those without instruments, making the night a combination uke and jam sing-along. The whole place is singing, even Chaput's mother sitting in the back with a sandwich.

Traditionally, the club starts its jams with "All of Me." Then come plenty more oldies, many of them mellow golden tunes like "Blueberry Hill" and "Yes Sir, That's My Baby." But "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is also popular, so you just never know.

During "Goodnight, Irene," someone busts out a blue, star-shaped tambourine, and in "Goodnight Sweetheart" a group of women get some nice vocal harmony going. Dave Wenrick gets up to lead "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," but after a while laughingly admits, "I don't know how all these chords go at the end," and turns the room back over to Fichtner.

All the while, John Kaay is playing smoothly in the back of the room, occasionally consulting the song sheets that he downloaded through the club's Yahoo group. He doesn't seem to know anyone here yet, but he's clearly not a beginner.

"It's my first time here, but I've been playing for a long time," he says. He first heard about the club at Palo Alto's Gryphon Stringed Instruments, where he's been a regular for 30 years, practicing not only ukulele but also fiddle, guitar, bass and banjo.

Tonight Kaay is playing a Kamaka ukulele from Hawaii, probably from the mid-'70s, purchased on eBay and repaired at Gryphon. It's a soprano uke, smaller than concert, tenor and baritone ukuleles.

Of all the stringed instruments in all the world, what makes the uke stand out? "It's a great instrument to sing with," Kaay says.

And, of course, it has only four strings to keep track of. "You don't have to worry about playing a melody line and a harmony line."

What: Ukulele Club of Silicon Valley hosts regular jams/sing-alongs for musicians of all levels.

Where: Dana Street Roasting Company, 744 W. Dana St., Mountain View

When: The second Monday of the month, with a group beginner lesson at 6:30 p.m. and jamming from 7 to 9 p.m.

Cost: Free

Info: For more about the club, go to groups.yahoo.com and then search for the UkeJam group. Dave Fichtner also hosts Monday jams from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at his Ladera home; e-mail him at davefichtner@yahoo.com.

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