City Life

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

Sarah Balla proudly holds up her ukulele, made by fellow Santa Cruzan Tony Graziano.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In the second installment of our Icons of Santa Cruz series — spotlighting the people, places and things that are immediately identifiable with Santa Cruz County — Wallace Baine delves into how an instrument once considered campy has struck such a chord and inspired a legion of local devotees.

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Once upon a time, the ukulele was a joke.

A strange-looking man named Tiny Tim — whose absurdly unruly hair gave him the look of a human palm tree — parlayed the ukulele into a bizarre novelty act that got him on television regularly in the 1960s and ’70s. The ukulele was a campy gee-gaw, sold as a cheap keepsake in Waikiki tourist shops. As a musical instrument, it commanded about as much respect as the toy piano (maybe even less, considering the toy piano was employed by John Cage and other “serious” composers).

Today, however, the uke is nobody’s punch line. It is embraced as a legitimate force in popular music, with its own classic records (Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Over the Rainbow”) and its own Hendrix-like prodigies, such as the astonishing Jake Shimabukuro.

In the past two decades, the ukulele has in fact spawned a genuine revolution in how people engage with music. The standard model of music dissemination — skilled artists performing for an attentive but passive audience in a live setting or through a recording — is in no danger of disappearing. But the ukulele has helped revive an older and more fundamental way to engage with music, which you might call the “campfire” mode, where distinctions between performers and audiences give way to the joy of people — friends and strangers, amateurs and pros — all making music together.

The uke has found an especially friendly environment in Santa Cruz where it has become so popular, it rivals the surfboard and the tie-dyed T-shirt as the city’s unofficial cultural emblem. Much of that popularity has come by way of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz, aka the “other UCSC,” a loose confederation of local uke lovers who gather in two separate groups every weekend, and who for years have hosted a monthly “meeting” that is mostly a boisterous, but joyous, sing-along session.

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Next Thursday, March 17, the club will mark its belated 20th anniversary at the Rio Theatre with a free gathering of ukuleles and those who love them. It is less a performance than a celebration of a uniquely musical community of people who meet up primarily to sing and play together. The club’s devotion to the ukulele and its distinctive Santa Cruz flavor even inspired a documentary film titled “Under the Boardwalk,” (to be screened at Thursday’s event), and it was prominently featured in another film about the ukulele’s revival around the world titled “The Mighty Uke.”

Why has the ukulele and not some other musical instrument created such a vibrant everybody’s-a-musician culture in Santa Cruz and elsewhere? The uke is famously approachable for those with little or even no experience playing music. Yet, at the same time, it is able to seduce more experienced musicians with its charm and versatility, as it has done in Hawaii for generations.

Linda Baker is a teacher who, for years, played guitar for her students. One day, about seven years ago, a parent of one of her students gave her a ukulele. Baker was at first skeptical. But soon she was not only seduced by the uke, she was joining other uke lovers at the beach on weekends on extended jam sessions.

“It’s the smallness of the instrument,” said Baker, “but it’s also the tone. And what it does in the presence of kids. Kids respond completely differently when I play a ukulele. And, I’m telling you, nobody can be unhappy with a ukulele in their hands. It’s just a rule.”

Cam Sobalvarro has been playing music since he was old enough to reach the keys on a piano. He’s played guitar, keyboards, bass and many other instruments. Sobalvarro, 57, came to the ukulele rather late in his musical life. “But somehow, this little four-string ukulele has just captured my heart,” he said, “and now I play it more than I play anything else, by a factor of maybe 4-to-1.”

Sobalvarro was living in the East Bay more than a decade ago when he first heard of local people gathering to play the ukulele at the Santa Cruz yacht harbor every Saturday. He attended as much as he could. Then, in 2013, he and his wife bought a house in Soquel.

“It’s not overstating it to say that the ukulele was a big influence on me wanting to move here,” he said. “Clearly, it was a lot more than that, too. But the ukulele really was symbolic of why I wanted to live here in the first place. Because not only did I feel that this uke group was cool and something I really wanted to be a part of, but it reminded me that I wanted to be part of a community that can foster and support a group like this.”

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The early days of the Ukulele Club

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

Michael McGee (left) and Peter Thomas (right) of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz
Michael McGee (left) and Peter Thomas (right) of the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz at Joe’s Pizza & Subs preparing for their upcoming 20th-anniversary show at the Rio Theatre.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At the time, artist Peter Thomas was throwing an annual party where he invited his musician friends to jam together. One year, he heard that Jim Beloff, a musician who was an early evangelist for the ukulele, was visiting the Bay Area. Thomas knew almost nothing about the ukulele, but he had seen Ukulele Dick perform and was inspired to throw a ukulele open-mic party with local musicians and invite Beloff to attend. The party was a big hit, the uke did its seductive magic, and the ukulele party became an annual tradition, building year by year in buzz and attendance.

Soon, Thomas and fellow uke lover Andy Andrews decided to establish a social club built on love of the ukulele and its adaptability to many types of participatory music-making. “The early founding of our group,” said Thomas, “was people who either loved Tin Pan Alley, like what Ukulele Dick was doing, or people who love Hawaiiana.”

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

“It kind of reminded me of the old Blue Brothers movie,” said Sandor Nagyszalanczy, who’s been part of the club from its beginnings. “They were like, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it great if we could get some great old blues players in this thing? Well, what could it hurt? Let’s call ’em up.’ It was really kind of like that with the Hawaiians. Basically, they were thrilled to come out and play for us, from the beginning.”

My personal theory is that ukuleles are to our other string instruments like puppies are to full-grown dogs, or babies are to adults. You just want to hold one.

— Sandor Nagyszalanczy

The club continually outgrew its venues until it finally landed at Bocci’s Cellar in the Harvey West area of Santa Cruz, the club’s home base for several years before the pandemic. A typical Bocci’s club meeting would feature several dozen aloha-shirt-clad uke players, passing around or sharing song sheets, following a song leader or two in any number of popular tunes from Tin Pan Alley to Motown to Beatles. They encouraged newcomers to follow along, sometimes on borrowed ukes, and pick out a few simple chords, often drawn on giant cardboard signs. As a listening experience, the club meetings were rarely anything more than fuzzy and chaotic. But that wasn’t the point. At this prom dance, there were no wallflowers. Everybody was a player, because the ukulele made it an easy entry point.

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

Club co-founder Andrews eventually moved to Hawaii, and Nagyszalanczy inherited from Andrews the responsibility for creating the songbooks from which the club draws its material. The self-published books feature the chords for 200 songs, and sometime this year, Nagyszalanczy will release the fifth such songbook.

Members of the Ukulele Club jam at Twin Lakes State Beach.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“That’ll get us to a thousand (songs),” he said. “Typically, I’ll create four to eight new songsheets for every meeting. We have them printed out, and we’ll play them. And I always make notes, because some of them are fun, and some of them are really dogs. And I retire the dogs and keep the good ones for the subsequent songbook.”

During the pandemic, the club ceased its monthly meetings at Bocci’s. Some participated in online or Facebook Live events. As the pandemic began to ease, Bocci’s, under new management (and rebranded as Urbani Cellar), became unworkable, and the club began meeting in other places — the Food Lounge in downtown Santa Cruz, or Joe’s Pizza and Subs on Water Street. In recent months, weekly outside gatherings have flourished — Saturday on the beach near the Crow’s Nest, and Sunday at the bandstand on the Capitola Esplanade. Though there is considerable overlap with the two groups, they are each distinct, with their own vibe and habits.

Pat Tracy is a musician and luthier who is a song leader at the Sunday morning Capitola gathering. He’s been part of the group for more than a decade. Before he joined the Uke Club, he said, “I had maybe a few close friends. Now, I’ve got at least 50 close friends.”

Linda Baker sings and plays guitar with a group called Backyard Birds. She met all her bandmates through Uke Club. She was a music major in college and performed regularly in her youth, before a long drought from playing music regularly. “It brought music back into my life,” she said, “and I never would have expected it. Our group 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 has never been a formal entity. To participate, all anyone has to do is show up. Genuine ukuleles — as opposed to the plastic toys meant to hang on the wall — are sold in many local music stores. A beginner’s uke goes for about $60. More expensive ones generally are made from finder materials and have a richer tone.

Baker suggests only to show up at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Crow’s Nest or Sunday in Capitola. “Everyone’s got their music stand. So just belly up to a stand, or just come see me or another song leader and we’ll hook you up with someone to play with,” she said. “And if you know a C (chord), that’s just one finger on one string. You can just play that whenever a C comes up.”

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

“It gets a little sand in it, you just shake it out,” said Cam Sobalvarro. “Now, I wouldn’t bring my $3,000 Martin guitar down to the beach, right? But the ukulele is small enough and generally inexpensive enough that you can take it to a day at the beach.”

Cam Sobalvarro has been playing with the Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz for more than 10 years.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

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

That was more than two decades ago. Since then, his love has grown into respect. “You can actually make good music on it, challenging music, interesting music. And it doesn’t have to be played by itself. You can play a ukulele in a band. I mean, it doesn’t show up a lot in contemporary pop music, but it does show up. And it doesn’t show up 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 becomes just another option to make music, another color. You can go into any major city and buy an instrument for $50, or for $3,000. The fact that music stores keep ($3,000 ukuleles) in stock tell me that someone is buying them. And, let me tell you, they sound like a dream. And they don’t sound anything like Tiny Tim, not at all.”

The Ukulele Club of Santa Cruz’s 20th anniversary celebration takes place next Thursday, March 17, at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz. Admission is free. The festivities, featuring a screening of Nina Koocher’s documentary “Under the Boardwalk,” begin at 5:30 p.m.